CAPE MAY COURT HOUSE - Middle Township High School football coach Frank Riggitano hopped atop a bench on the sideline at Memorial Field and led the Panthers in an old-school victory chant Thursday morning.
Middle senior running back Nigel Case then grabbed the Anchor Bowl plaque and hoisted it while his teammates cheered. The Panthers capped one of its best seasons in recent history with a 35-0 win over rival Lower Cape May Regional in their annual Thanksgiving Day showdown.
The win gave Middle (6-4) its first winning season since 2004. More importantly, the Panthers beat Lower (1-9). They also took a 9-8 lead since the teams started playing the Anchor Bowl on Thanksgiving morning. Middle leads the overall series 41-24-2.
The winner takes possession of the plaque that features an anchor taken from a boat owned by the father of former Lower coach Bill Garrison.
"It means a lot to beat them," Case said. "We lost to them last year, so we wanted to make sure we got that trophy back."
Before the game, Riggitano gave his team a reminder of just how intense and important the Middle-Lower rivalry can be.
Riggitano was a quarterback and place-kicker for the Lower Cape May team that beat Middle Township for the first time in 26 years in 1978. Panthers assistant coach John Richardson played for Middle that year.
"Coach tells that story all the time," Case said. "And now we have a story to tell."
Case and fellow senior running back Terrance Toney made sure the Panthers avoided an upset loss. Case rushed for a game-high 171 yards and two touchdowns on 14 carries. Toney scored a team-high three TDs while gaining 128 yards on nine attempts.
Senior safety Darrell Shelton led a strong defensive effort for Middle with a pair of interceptions. He also converted all five of his extra-point attempts.
Both of Shelton's interceptions came in the first quarter. Middle capitalized on the turnovers with touchdowns to take a 14-0 lead. Case gave the Panthers the lead for good with a 27-yard dash to the end zone with 7 minutes, 28 seconds left in the opening period. Less than four minutes later, Toney capped a 44-yard drive with an 8-yard TD.
While Middle led only 14-0 at halftime, the Panthers took command on Toney's 26-yard TD in the third quarter. Toney then added a 57-yard scamper in the fourth quarter. Case closed the scoring with a 20-yard TD in which he appeared to be trapped in the backfield but broke loose, reversed direction and sprinted up the right sideline.
Meanwhile, Lower couldn't establish an offensive rhythm. Middle's defense held the Caper Tigers to just 90 yards and six first downs. A pair of Middle facemask penalties helped Lower move to the 9-yard line late in the third quarter, but an illegal procedure penalty and offensive pass interference flag ended the threat.
"I knew we had to be able to throw the ball and stop the run to have a chance and we didn't get it done," Lower coach Mike Wilson said. "I felt like we could at least be a .500 team in the beginning of the year, but we lacked leadership."
Middle's win ended an impressive season that also saw them qualify for the South Jersey Group II playoffs for just the third time in program history.
But the Panthers' highlight was being able to keep the Anchor Bowl plaque for a year.
"I'm so happy for the seniors on this team," Riggitano said. "It's been a long haul for them, but they gave me an outstanding effort all year. We accomplished a lot in a short period of time and now they have something they'll remember for the rest of their lives."
Contact David Weinberg:
Lower Cape May Regional 0 0 0 0-0
Middle Township 14 0 7 14-35
M-Case 27 run. (Shelton kick)
M- Toney 8 run. (Shelton kick)
M- Toney 26 run. (Shelton kick)
M- Toney 57 run. (Shelton kick)
M- Case 20 run. (Shelton kick)
First Downs -LCM 6, MT 16
Rushing Yards- LCM 78, MT 358
Passing Yards- LCM 12, MT 0
Turnovers- LCM 2, MT 0
Rushing-Ziegler 18-42, Sole 7-22, Marshall 9-12, Holden 2-2 L; Case 14-171, Toney 9-128, McNeil 12-51, Vogelei 5-18, Blake 2-9, Durso 1-(-1), Knight 2(-3), Arenberg 1-(-15) M.
Passing-Holden 1-6-12, Zeigler 0-3-0 L; Durso 0-2-0 M.
Receiving-Ziegler 1-12 L.
RECORDS-Lower Cape May 1-9; Middle Township 6-4.