LOWER TOWNSHIP - The aluminum bleacher seats at Lower Cape May Regional High School's Steven Steger Field weren't used much Saturday.
Lower and visiting Barnegat staged a thrilling, down-to-the-wire duel in their South Jersey Group II quarterfinal playoff football game. One-handed catches, serpentine runs and jarring hits kept fans from both teams on their feet for all 48 minutes of the Bengals' 29-28 victory.
Even the coaches were caught up in the excitement.
"There was one point when (Lower offensive coordinator) Larry Ziemba came up to me and said, 'Man, ain't this fun?' " Lower coach Mike Wilson said. "And I couldn't argue with him. I'm a pretty emotional person, anyway, and this was just an unbelievable experience."
Both teams were seeking the first playoff win in the history of their programs. Fifth-seeded Barnegat (5-4), which lost its only previous playoff game in 2006, advanced to next weekend's semifinals against top-seeded West Deptford (9-0), the No. 5 team in The Press Elite 11. The Bengals have only had a varsity program for five years.
Lower Cape May (5-4), the fourth seed, lost its opening games in 1980 and 2006. The Caper Tigers will try to end their incredible season - they were 1-29 in the last three years - on a high note when they face rival Middle Township in the Anchor Bowl on Thanksgiving Day.
"I feel bad for Lower Cape May because they're a good team," Bengals coach Rob Davis said. "But I'm really proud of our kids for the way they stepped up today."
The Bengals could not douse Davis with Gatorade without holding off a series of Lower Cape May comebacks. Lower's final rally ended on Barnegat's 5-yard line with 1 minute, 59 seconds left in regulation. Facing a fourth-and-4 situation, Wilson sent out backup place-kicker Chris Alicea to attempt a 23-yard field goal. Alicea, a standout wide receiver who caught a 60-yard touchdown pass earlier in the game, was subbing for Mike Mulligan. Mulligan played quarterback despite a painful injury to his right hip and quadriceps that left him limping for most of the game.
Alicea's kick was headed between the uprights but sailed under the crossbar, touching off a wild celebration on Barnegat's sideline.
"I thought about going for the first down or touchdown, but I thought the field goal was our best option," Wilson said. "We have a lot of faith in Chris. I watched him in practice all week and he was money inside the 15 (yard line). But the timing (on the play) was just a little off."
There were several occasions when it appeared as though Barnegat would win much more convincingly.
The Bengals marched through Lower's defense with suprising ease on their first two possessions. Quarterback Nick SanGiacomo, who is headed to Tulane University next season, completed 9-of-10 passes for 86 yards on those drives to set up a 4-yard touchdown run by senior running back Lou Buscio and his own 1-yard sneak that put Barnegat ahead 14-0.
Barnegat also got off to a hot start in the second half. Buscio scored on a 3-yard run and senior running back Casey Pinto dashed to the end zone from 37 yards out to put the Bengals ahead 29-12.
"There were a couple of times where we thought we had the game (under control)," said SanGiacomo, who completed 20-of-27 passes for 197 yards. "But we knew Lower was a good team and they would keep fighting back."
In past seasons, the Caper Tigers did not respond well to adversity. As the losses mounted and the support from the community and school declined, the players began to lose confidence.
Not this year. Wilson set the tone early by handing out T-shirts among the players and staff with "No More" emblazoned on the back. The players took the message to heart.
"When we fell behind today, it didn't bother us," Mulligan said. "We're used to being down, so it was nothing new to us. The difference now is that we know how to fight to get back up."
Mulligan sparked the comebacks. The junior threw four touchdown passes while completing 10-of-15 passes for 219 yards. Junior wide receiver Vance Matthews was his main target. Matthews caught four passes for 120 yards and scored three TDs. He also grabbed an interception.
With Lower trailing 14-0, Mulligan fired a pass over the middle that the speedy Alicea turned into a 60-yard TD. Mulligan then found Matthews for a 12-yard score on the next possession. After Barnegat's second-half surge, Mulligan and Matthews teamed up for a 50-yard TD and then combined for a 55-yard TD that helped cut the deficit to one point.
Lower then set itself up for a possible victory by recovering a fumble at Barnegat's 46-yard line with six minutes left in regulation, but the Caper Tigers ultimately came up short.
"It hurts to lose, but we still completely surpassed our expectations just by getting this far," Mulligan said. "We set goals in the beginning of the season and making the playoffs was one of them, but nobody really expected us to actually do it."
Contact David Weinberg:
Barnegat 6 8 15 0-29
Lower Cape May 0 12 8 8-28
B-Buscio 4 run. (Kick failed)
B-SanGiacomo 1 run. (Moran pass from SanGiacomo)
L-Alicea 60 pass from Mulligan. (Kick failed)
L-Matthews 12 pass from Mulligan. (Kick failed)
B-Buscio 3 run. (Moran kick)
B-Pinto 37 run. (Smithman run)
L-Matthews 50 pass from Mulligan. (Mulligan run)
L-Matthews 55 pass from Mulligan. (Alicea run)
TEAM STATISTICS B L
First downs 24 14
Rushing yards 118 133
Passing yards 197 219
Turnovers 2 1
RUSHING-Barnegat, Pinto 6-61, Buscio 13-33, SanGiacomo 14-21, Smithman 1-3. Lower, Ziegler 13-75, Hall 8-54, Alicea 3-4, Mulligan 6-0, Sole 1-0.
PASSING-Barnegat, SanGiancomo 20-27-197-1. Lower, Mulligan 10-15-219-1.
RECEIVING-Barnegat, Moran 8-111, DeTroia 5-39, Morris 5-37, Buscio 2-13. Lower, Matthews 4-120, Alicea 4-77, Hall 1-13, Ziegler 1-7.
RECORDS-Barnegat 5-4, Lower 6-3.