WALL TOWNSHIP — In the waning minutes of Friday night’s meeting between Sparta-Jefferson and Freehold Township in the second round of the NJSIAA Public A Tournament, Jaxon Mase put the game out of reach.
With just over two minutes remaining in regulation, C.J. Leonardo raced behind the defense and down the right side boards where he collected a loose puck in the offensive zone and drove the net before leaving a rebound out in front for Mase to poke home as 11th-seeded Sparta built a two-goal lead en route to a 4-2 upset over sixth-seeded Freehold Township at the Jersey Shore Arena in Wall.
“We came in knowing they were going to come out flying. We knew they were a very skilled team and we had to find a way to shut them down and take advantage of their mistakes. We were able to do that and now we have to keep it going in the quarterfinals,” Mase said of his team’s upset over the highly-ranked Patriots.
Mase’s third-period tally was his second of the night as the junior centerman put the Spartans (15-5-3) up 3-1 on the Patriots (18-5-1) with 13:18 to play in the second period on what would go in the books as the game-winning goal.
“It feels great to have come through for my team in a state game like this,” Mase said. “I couldn’t have done it without my teammates, especially C.J. Leonardo, who had both the assists on my goals. He put the puck on net both times and I crashed hard looking for a rebound… thankfully they went in.”
Freehold Township’s senior defenseman Julian Kislin opened the scoring with 5:37 to play in the first period on a power-play tally, putting his 24th of the year to the back of the net off a Max Halvorsen assist. Sparta answered shortly thereafter when Mike Kwiecinski chipped home a short-handed goal to knot the contest at 1-1 with 4:57 remaining in the opening period.
The Spartans took a two-goal lead in the middle frame when Mike Holovach picked up the primary assist on Kwiecinski’s second of the night and fourth of the season before Mase made it a 3-1 advantage on his 14th.
Freehold Township swing the momentum back in its favor in the first minute of the third period as Kislin and Brendan Liebross worked the puck to the front of the net where Tyler McNamara knocked home his 23rd of the season.
The comeback bid, however, was snuffed out on Mase’s 15th.
“Freehold has a really skilled club over there and we let the guys know that we had to commit to playing in the defensive zone. If we lost our heads and went forward into the offensive zone all night, instead of taking care business in our own zone this was going to be a tough night for us,” Sparta coach Bob Kreisinger said.
A strong Spartans defensive effort was fortified by the play of freshman netminder Logan Hanek, who steered away 24 of 26 shots faced.
“We knew Freehold was a team capable of scoring a lot of goals so we were going to focus on defense first and hope our goalie could stand on his head — and he did that,” Kreisinger said.
Hanek was perfect in the second period, stopping all seven shots faced, but saw the bulk of his work in a stressful third period where the freshman turned away 10 of 11 Patriots’ shots to preserve the victory.
“He’s such a young player, but he’s gotten a lot better as the year has gone on,” Kreisinger added. “We’ve been working with him to improve his angles, to better control rebounds, and it all came together tonight. You couldn’t ask for anything more out of him.”
While speaking with a heavy heart, Freehold Township coach Michael Celano praised his Patriots, post-game, for their efforts throughout the 2016-17 campaign.
“This is a team that broke all sorts of records. They set the single-season wins record. They won a division championship. They gave me everything they had. They’ve done everything I’ve ever asked them to do. They’re going to leave themselves a legacy and I’m going to miss this group a lot,” Celano said.
With the victory Sparta will travel to third-seeded Randolph in the Public A quarterfinals set for Monday, Feb. 27 at Mennen Arena in Morris Township. The puck drops at 4:30 p.m.