With about four minutes left on March 10 at the Rutgers Athletic Center, the basketball rolled out of bounds along the sideline.
As the buzzer sounded, Freehold Township High School made a line change. The Patriots’ core seniors, Greg Billups, Cristian Corcione, Zach Barilka, Seth Meisner and Matt Santangelo, left the floor together for the last time.
They walked down the sideline, exchanging high fives and hugs with their teammates and coaches. Then they gathered in the corner and enjoyed a group hug. A couple photographers came over and snapped pictures of the moment.
It was a fitting sendoff for a class that made Freehold Township history.
When the seniors walked off the court, Freehold Township trailed East Side High School of Newark by double digits in the NJSIAA Group 4 championship game. The Patriots would go on to lose, 69-44, falling one victory short of the NJSIAA Tournament of Champions.
The loss, though, did not diminish what Freehold Township accomplished this year. On March 4, Freehold Township stunned Trenton Central High School, 57-56, in the Central Jersey, Group 4 state sectional championship game. It was the first state sectional title for the program after six championship defeats.
Two days later in the group semifinals, Freehold Township beat Cherokee High School, 44-42. But in the state title game, the Patriots just ran into a better team.
After Freehold Township took an early 22-19 lead, East Side started pressing and went on a 39-8 run over the next two quarters. The Red Raiders from Newark used their athleticism to make the Patriots play their game.
But after it was over, Freehold Township was not devastated. On the postgame podium, the players stood up straight and answered questions loudly and clearly.
They were proud that they made history. They were even prouder that they did so after finishing 9-13 last winter.
“It just shows what type of character we have,” Corcione said. “I love these guys.”
Even on the court in the fourth quarter, Billups was not dismayed by his team’s big deficit. He was focusing more on the big picture.
“It was one game we lost today,” Billups said. “But in getting here, we were able to do something that not a lot of Shore teams even do.”
“It’s an amazing feeling,” he added.
“This whole experience was a dream come true,” Meisner added. “I couldn’t be happier to be where we are.”
Freehold Township’s coach, Brian Golub, is a 24-year veteran. He was 0-6 in state sectional title games before this winter. He admitted that he never expected these Patriots to be the team to break that streak.
“I would have signed on the dotted line in late November if you told me this would happen,” Golub said.
“I thought we’d be good and competitive,” he added. “I’d be lying if I told you I thought we’d be in the Group 4 final.”
Pride, however, was not enough to make March 10 a happy day for the Patriots. Instead, it was bittersweet.
The seniors will graduate in June, and they will miss playing together.
“It’s sad. It makes us cry,” Meisner said. “But at the end of the day, we did what no one else could do.”