Patriots defeat Howell behind complete game shutout from Lusnia

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Freehold Township High School left fielder Amaya Marrero hugs teammate Kristen Lee after hitting a two-run home run during a game against Howell High School on May 12 in Freehold. Freehold Township defeated Howell 9-0.STEVEN BASSIN/STAFF
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Freehold Township High School starting pitcher Nikki Lusnia strikes out the first batter of the game against Howell High School on May 12 in Freehold. Lusnia had 11 strikeouts in the contest. STEVEN BASSIN/STAFF
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Freehold Township High School first baseman Olivia Smith smacks a base-hit down the left-field line during a game against Howell High School on May 12 in Freehold. Freehold Township won 9-0. STEVEN BASSIN/STAFF
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Freehold Township High School right fielder Brittany Lally hits a double to the gap in left-center during a game against Howell High School on May 12 in Howell.STEVEN BASSIN/STAFF
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Freehold Township High School left fielder Amaya Marrero hugs teammate Kristen Lee after hitting a two-run home run during a game against Howell High School on May 12 in Freehold. Freehold Township defeated Howell 9-0.STEVEN BASSIN/STAFF
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Freehold Township High School starting pitcher Nikki Lusnia strikes out the first batter of the game against Howell High School on May 12 in Freehold. Lusnia had 11 strikeouts in the contest. STEVEN BASSIN/STAFF
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Freehold Township High School first baseman Olivia Smith smacks a base-hit down the left-field line during a game against Howell High School on May 12 in Freehold. Freehold Township won 9-0. STEVEN BASSIN/STAFF
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Freehold Township High School right fielder Brittany Lally hits a double to the gap in left-center during a game against Howell High School on May 12 in Howell.STEVEN BASSIN/STAFF

It was one game into the 2021 season when Josh Mehl stepped up and took over the head coaching duties of the Freehold Township High School softball team.

Mehl was an assistant coach in the program and stepped in for Christian Erbig after the first game of the season on April 20. Erbig stepped down as coach for personal reasons, according to Freehold Township Supervisor of Extracurricular Activities Adam Brusotti.

Becoming the head coach has gone “seamlessly” for Mehl and for the Patriots, who have been dynamite on the diamond. Freehold Township improved to 9-1 on the strength of a 9-0 victory over Howell on May 12 in Freehold Township.

The Patriots lead the Shore Conference A North Division.

“It’s a real testament to the girls,” Mehl said. “They work hard every day and they just want to win. We have been taking things day by day and trying to get a little better each day.”

After being the boys varsity soccer coach for five seasons and leading the Patriots to the Shore Conference Tournament title in 2019, Mehl has carried his expectations from the pitch to the diamond and has seen his softball squad embrace those goals for success.

“It’s easy to succeed when your athletes have the same or higher expectations as you do,” the coach said. “We have a talented team and we are putting it together each week.”

Against Howell, junior ace Nikki Lusnia struck out 11 batters and allowed only three hits to record the first complete game shutout of her career.

“It feels great because I have been working hard all off-season and everything is coming together,” Lusnia said. “We all knew Howell was a big rival of ours and that we had come out strong from the start. Being able to get the strikeouts was great. Everyone made their plays behind me and it was awesome.”

Lusnia retired 15 straight Rebels from the point where there was one out in the first inning until there was one out in the sixth inning.

The 11 strikeouts tied a career high for Lusnia, who also contributed two hits and an RBI against Howell.

Clutch hitting with two out was a key to Freehold Township’s victory. It began in the first inning when Amaya Marrero singled home a run for a 1-0 lead.

With two out in the second inning, Brittany Lally reached base on a double and scored on a single by Dana Williams for a 2-0 lead.

Lusnia’s two-out, run-scoring single in the third inning made it 3-0, and freshman Ashley Viesta followed with a hit to score Lusnia and make the score 4-0.

The Patriots scored seven of their nine runs in the game with two out.

“We are not satisfied with any inning unless we maximize our at-bats,” Mehl said. “The idea every time we go into an inning is that we are not done until we have three outs. It’s consistency and making every at-bat count. We have been pretty successful with that this year.”

The Patriots scored four runs in the bottom of the fourth inning to put it away.

After a sacrifice fly by Lila Williams made it 5-0, Marrero came up with two out and singled in her second run of the game to make the score 6-0.

That kept the inning going for Kristen Lee, who smashed an opposite field home run over the right field fence to put Freehold Township up 8-0. It was Lee’s first home run for the Patriots.

Lee was embraced in a joyful hug by Marrero at home plate and was pleased she was able to come up with a big hit to help the Patriots put the game out of reach.

“It felt amazing,” Lee said of her home run. “My teammates are so supportive and I know that even when I’m having a tough game they are there to pick me up.”

Dana Williams scored Freehold Township’s final run on a wild pitch in the fifth inning. She finished with three hits, two runs scored and an RBI.

Freehold Township has earned the No. 6 seed in the Shore Conference Tournament, which will begin on May 15.

The Patriots believe they can go far in the tournament as they continue to bond together and have success on the diamond.

“We all love each other and support each other and that’s what is helping us push through,” Marrero said.