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Santiago’s winner in OT lifts Patriots to second straight state sectional crown

The “redemption tour” that is the 2022 season for the Freehold Township High School girls soccer team checked off another box on Nov. 5 as the Patriots won their second consecutive state sectional tournament championship.

The right foot of Hailey Santiago capped a thrilling comeback by the Patriots as the junior forward scored the game-winning goal early in overtime to lift No. 1 seed Freehold Township to a 2-1 win over No. 6 seed Manalapan High School in the NJSIAA Central Jersey Group IV championship match at Howell High School.

“It feels so amazing,” Santiago said. “I’m so happy right now.”

Freehold Township (19-1) will now set its sights on returning to the Group IV state tournament championship match. The Patriots lost the 2021 Group IV final to Westfield High School, 1-0.

Freehold Township will face South Jersey Group IV champion Eastern High School in the Group IV state tournament semifinals on Nov. 8 at Howell High School.

Winning a second consecutive state sectional championship was not easy for the Patriots, who rallied from a 1-0 deficit in the final moments against Manalapan.

“It was a hard fought team win,” senior captain Kayla Wong said. “Every single person on the team did their part. Everyone gave it their all. I’m really proud of us.”

After a scoreless first half, Manalapan took a 1-0 lead early in the second half.

In the 46th minute, a scrum in front of the Freehold Township net led to junior Vanessa Sarf tapping in her 23rd goal of the season for the Braves.

The Braves hung onto their lead heading into the final seven minutes of the match on the strength of the stellar play of freshman goalkeeper Lelia Shaw. The ninth-grader finished the match with 15 saves.

Freehold Township’s hopes of advancing in state play were slowly slipping away, but Coach Dave Patterson said his players did not panic. He said he sensed they believed they could still win the match.

“They have always had the resolve that they are never out of a game and that they can beat any team they are playing against,” Patterson said. “We have shown a couple of times that we can come back and beat good teams.”

That belief became reality in the 74th minute when sophomore Gaby Parker scored her 15th goal of the season to tie the match at 1-1. A rebound in front of the Manalapan net fell to Parker’s feet and she knocked home the equalizer.

“It felt so amazing to score that goal for my team,” Parker said. “We knew we just needed one to get back in it. Everybody was working super hard to get that result. It was honestly a team effort.”

The 80 minutes of regulation play ended with the score tied 1-1 and the teams headed to overtime.

In the state tournament, two 10-minute overtime periods will be played until one team scores a “golden goal” (game-winner). If neither team scores in the two overtime periods, the game is decided by penalty kicks.

Three minutes into overtime, Santiago struck for her team-leading 22nd goal of the season.

Santiago read a pass upfield from Ainsley Moy perfectly and headed into the Manalapan area with a full head of steam.

Seeing nothing but Shaw and the goal in front of her, Santiago later said she knew this was her chance to be the hero and to win the game for her team.

“I needed to score,” she said

Once Shaw came out of the net to try to stop Santiago’s momentum, the Patriots’ forward slid underneath the Braves’ keeper and slapped the ball with her right foot at the same time. The ball rolled into the net for the game-winner as the Patriots mobbed Santiago.

Santiago, who scored 13 goals as a sophomore, said her game-winner represented the growth she has exhibited as a player this season.

“I feel like I have really made a difference from what I did last year,” she said. “I am really proud of myself.”

Freehold Township has now won consecutive state sectional tournament titles for the first time in the 50-year history of the school.

Patterson said his players are proud of their accomplishment, but know there is still more work to be done, starting with facing Eastern in the Group IV state tournament semifinals.

“The story all season for us has been redemption and we are not going to give up anything without a fight,” the coach said. “We are going to give everything we’ve got, every time we are out there. We believe in ourselves.”

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