MIDDLETOWN – It’s been a steady climb to respectability for the Middletown North girls soccer program the past four years and it appears this season the Lions are out to prove themselves legitimate after a breakthrough season a year ago.
The Lions girls soccer program does have the pedigree of a big-time program and it’s their intention to reclaim that status as one of the Shore Conference’s premier girls soccer programs.
From 1989 to 2007, the Lions were a perennial top 10 team winning the Shore Conference Tournament championship from 1991 through 1993 – the first team to win three straight SCT titles – and again in 2004. They were SCT runner ups in 1989 and 2005 and won the NJSIAA Central Jersey Group IV title in 2005. But from 2009 to 2013 the Lions hit a dry spell combining to win a total of only four games in those five seasons.
“I keep telling the girls that we are a soccer school and that it’s important to us,” said Patricia Misciagna, who is in her sixth year as head coach at Middletown North. “The banners are all hanging around in the gym but none with any years that we’ve been here, so we want to get up there.”
In 2014 and 2015 the Lions improved to 6-12 but failed to qualify for the either the Shore Conference Tournament or the state playoffs. Last season the Lions took another jump forward going 12-10-1 and surprisingly finishing second in Class B North play.
And even though last season’s record included double-digit losses, that number was a bit deceiving. Included in those losses were Wall (twice), RBC, SJV, Freehold Township, Toms River North and Rumson-Fair Haven – all top 10 teams in the Shore Conference.
Their 4-0 loss to third-seeded Toms River North last season came in the Round of 16 in the SCT after defeating Manchester in the first round and after upsetting second-seeded Somerville on penalty kicks in the NJSIAA North 2, Group 3 quarterfinals, they fell to third-seeded Mendham in the semifinals.
With impressive showings in both the SCT and state playoffs a year ago, the Lions finished ranked ninth in the final Asbury Park Press Top 10 girls soccer poll.
This season, after a 6-1 start including a 4-3 win over Red Bank Catholic and a heartbreaking 4-3 loss to Wall in which they held a 3-1 lead, the Lions have moved up to fifth in the latest APP Shore Conference top 10 poll. Wall is ranked second in the Shore and fourth in the state.
“The girls are excited and we’re excited,” said Misciagna when asked about her team being ranked fifth in the Shore. “It shows that we can play with a lot of the strong teams in the Shore. We’ve battled against some tough teams, we’re playing really well, moving the ball around, playing our style of soccer and it just gives us confidence to keep going.”
Returning 11 key players from last year’s squad, the Lions are off to their best start since 2007 when that team began the season 8-0-1 but lost its final three games ending the season on a disappointing note.
Junior forward Lindsey O’Keefe is back after a season which she was an All-Division selection after scoring 17 goals and assisting on another five a year ago. In six games this season she’s recorded seven goals with four assists and is on pace for even greater production this year.
Forward Kaleigh Harmon is tied with O’Keefe for the team lead in goals scored with seven along with two assists after a breakout sophomore year when she posted 11 goals and six assists.
“Kaleigh and Lindsey have a lot of speed and know how to find the goal,” Misciagno said of her two top scorers. “They work really well together doing giving give-and-goes. Also, whichever one scores the other one often times finds the assist for that player so they really complement each other nicely and are just hungry for the goal.”
Junior Casey Bogues primarily played defense a year ago for the Lions but transitioned to midfield this season and the results have paid off smartly. In last Tuesday’s 3-0 win over Monmouth Regional, Bogues scored two first half goals giving her six goals and three assists for the season.
“It was difficult at first,” said Bogues of her position switch. “But my teammates really helped me getting in the mind set to more offensively than defensively.”
“Casey’s played defense for us, she can play up top, she can play in the middle,” said Misciagno when asked of Bogues’ move to midfield. “She’s just a hard worker. She hustles, gets to the ball first, finishes goals, creates opportunities and can do whatever the team needs her to do which is great.”
Senior midfielders Bess Mascone (2 G, 1 A) and Nicole Puzo (4 A), junior midfielder Emily McCarthy (1 G), junior forward Samantha Ferris (1 A) and sophomore forward Darien Rinn (2 G, 1 A) also supply offensive support while seniors Katie Gwiazdowski (1 A), Mackenzie Kernan (1 G) and Ava McGregor (1 A), junior Gabi Triolo, freshman Carley Binn and junior goalie Hailey Martin form a solid defensive unit that is now working on three straight shutouts.
“Honestly it’s coming from our coaching; we have an amazing coach,” Bogues said when asked about the Lions’ turnaround. “And we have a great group of girls that really mix well together. I couldn’t ask for a better group. They work hard at practice, always trying and we’re always going in the right mind set. When coach told me at halftime that we were ranked No. 5 I couldn’t believe it. But we have work to do; we want to advance farther in the Shore Conference Tournament and states than we did.”
UPDATE: Middletown North fell to crosstown rival Middletown South, 3-1, Saturday at South dropping to 6-2 on the year. Bess Mascone scored the lone goal for the Lions, who travel to Manasquan Tuesday in the hopes of righting the ship.