LOWER TOWNSHIP - The Lower Cape May Regional High School girls soccer team learned to never take a lead for granted Thursday.
Even a four-goal lead.
The Caper Tigers went up by four in the first half before giving up three unanswered goals to Cape-Atlantic League National Conference rival Middle Township. However, Lower was able to ultimately hang on to its lead in a 5-4 win over the Panthers.
"All the props in the world for the girls giving 80 solid minutes, because that's what we needed to do (against a team like Middle)," Lower coach Brett Matthews said.
The win gave the Caper Tigers (9-2) the edge in a tight Division I race with the Panthers (7-2-1).
Playing under the lights in a rare night game, an excited Caper Tigers squad came out firing. In the eighth minute, junior midfielder Gabriella McKeown dribbled the ball between two Middle defenders before finishing off her 52nd career goal.
McKeown is now Lower Cape May's all-time leading scorer. She tied previous record holder Frankie Gibson (51), a 2010 graduate, on Tuesday.
McKeown added another goal later in the half. Madie Gibson, Amanda Durbin and Ariel Magee also scored. Lower Cape May has one of the area's most potent offenses. McKeown and Gibson have combined for 42 goals in 11 games.
"We're a goal-scoring team. We put the ball in the back of the net," Matthews said.
A half hour into the game, a blowout appeared imminent. The Panthers couldn't match Lower Cape May's agility or energy and spent much of their time trying to clear the ball from their end.
"We haven't seen speed like that all year," Panthers coach Bob Wishart Jr. said. "That was a nightmare for the kids in the first 30 minutes."
However, Middle Township has some weapons of its own.
Danielle McCann scored on a free kick near the 18-yard box to bring the Panthers within one. After Lower went up 5-3, McCann scored again on breakaway with 20 minutes remaining. Freshman Jen McCann, Danielle's sister, scored twice in the first half.
Middle never tied the game, but continued to threaten to score as time winded down. With less than a minute to play, Lower sweeper Nicole Sangillo used her body to deflect what could have been the tying goal on a boot by Danielle McCann.
Fans from both schools filled Lower Cape May's bleachers. It was a gritty, hard-fought rivalry game that the Panthers almost came back to win.
"For some of the younger kids, this is almost like a South Jersey final with how physical it is, how fast it is," Wishart said. "I'm happy they responded. But, they need to come out like this."
Nine goals were scored in 60 minutes. Although each team has notable attackers, Lower and Middle have perennially relied on defense.
Last year, the two teams allowed 30 goals in a combined 42 games. Lower reached a South Jersey Group III final and Middle reached its second straight South Jersey Group II final. Each team took major hits to their backfields this season because of graduation and have counted on offense to carry them.
"We knew coming in this wasn't going to be your typical Middle defensive showdown," Wishart said.
Lower Cape May quickly grasped that goals alone will not push them through the rest of the season. The Caper Tigers' defense will have to overcome its inexperience if they hope to have a similar playoff run in November.
Otherwise, teams like Middle may be able to complete the rally.
"We've got to be able to suck it up and understand that no game is ever out of the woods," Matthews said.
Contact Brittany Grugan:
Middle Township 2 2-4
Lower Cape May Regional 4 1-5
Goals-J. McCann (2), D. McCann (2) MT; McKeown (2), Gibson, Durbin, Magee LCM.
Goalies-Salvo (6) MT; Sulecki (5) LCM.
Records-Middle 7-2-1; Lower 9-2.