CAPE MAY COURT HOUSE - Chris Alicea, Eric Fletcher, Tyler Sole and the rest of Lower Cape May Regional High School's senior football players took turns embracing and hoisting the Anchor Bowl plaque in the end zone Thursday morning.
The Caper Tigers' amazing turnaround this season would not have been complete if they had not taken that trophy - which includes an anchor from a boat owned by former coach Bill Garrison's father - on the bus for the ride back to school from Middle Township.
"Beating Middle was pretty much all we talked about for the last two weeks," said Alicea, a wide receiver and defensive back. "Actually, we've been talking about it since the beginning of the season."
Lower used an impressive defensive performance to accomplish the goal. The unit scored three touchdowns and forced five turnovers to lead the Caper Tigers to a 30-6 win in the 15th edition of the Lower-Middle Thanksgiving rivalry.
The teams actually have been meeting annually since 1948, but the Anchor Bowl did not start until 1996. Middle still leads the Thanksgiving series 8-7 and had won three in a row before Thursday. Middle also leads the all-time series 40-23-2.
The win enabled Lower to finish this season at 7-3, its best record since 2006. The program had fallen on hard times in recent years, going a combined 1-29 in 2007-09.
"This just goes to show that hard work pays off," said Lower coach Mike Wilson, who played for the Caper Tigers. "That's one of the lessons I learned from (former) coach Garrison and (former coach) Jeff Wunder. I'm so proud of the kids. It would have been very easy for them to hang their heads when times were tough, but they stuck together."
Especially the seniors.
Twenty players came out for Lower's football team in the fall of 2007. Just eight were still wearing shoulder pads and helmets on Sunday.
"Winning this game and having the kind of season we've had is just the greatest feeling in the world," Alicea said. "Words can't describe it."
Alicea contributed to Thursday's victory with a 30-yard touchdown run and three two-point conversion passes from junior quarterback Mike Mulligan. But Lower's dangerous offense struggled for most of the game, producing just 147 total yards and committing five turnovers via three fumbles and two interceptions by Middle sophomore linebacker Terrance Toney.
Conversely, Middle's offense gained 277 yards behind sophomore running back Nigel Case (14 carries, 88 yards) and junior running back Brian Smith (16 carries, 75 yards). But other than Smith's 19-yard scamper in the second quarter, the Panthers (1-9) were unable to capitalize on scoring opportunities. They also had trouble holding on to the football, throwing three interceptions and losing two fumbles.
"Mistakes have been the story of our season," said Middle coach Mike Wilson, a Lower grad who is no relation to the Caper Tigers' coach. "We played well defensively and our offense was able to move the ball OK, but we couldn't put the ball in the end zone. We came ready to play today on offense and defense, but mistakes really hurt us."
Lower's defense made Middle pay for the miscues. Junior safety Shaq Lovelace scored twice in the second quarter, on a 70-yard interception return and a 32-yard fumble return to give the Caper Tigers a 14-6 halftime lead. Fletcher closed the scoring with a 29-yard interception return in the fourth.
Lovelace wound up leading the Cape-Atlantic League in defensive touchdowns this season with three. Lower did not allow a single TD pass.
"I can't take the credit for this," Lovelace said. "Everybody on our defense did their job today. I just happened to be in the right place at the right time. Our whole defense really stepped up."
As the game ended, Lower's players dumped a bucket of Gatorade on their coach, grabbed the plaque and gathered for a team picture.
A few minutes later, those eight seniors huddled together for another photo before joining the underclassmen for a raucous caravan of buses and cars back down Route 9.
"It's time for Lower Cape May football to come back," Alicea said. "This is the start of a revolution."
Contact David Weinberg:
Lower Cape May 0 14 8 8-30
Middle Township 0 6 0 0-6
L-Lovelace 70 interception return (Alicea pass from Mulligan)
M-Smith 19 run (Run failed)
L-Lovelace 32 fumble return (Pass failed)
L-Alicea 30 run (Alicea pass from Mulligan)
L-Fletcher 29 interception return (Alicea pass from Mulligan)
TEAM STATISTICS L M
First downs 7 14
Rushing yards 106 229
Passing yards 41 48
Turnovers 5 5
Rushing-Lower, Alicea 1-30, Mulligan 3-28, Ziegler 5-26, Hall 9-21, Hicks 1-5, Kocher 1-1, Sole 1-(-5). Middle, Case 14-88, Smith 16-75, Manning 14-58, Keith 7-15 Staten 1-1, Johnson 1(-2), Wright 1-(-6).
Passing-Lower, Mulligan 2-7-41-2. Middle, Keith 3-7-48-3, Smith 0-2-0.
Receiving-Lower, Alicea 1-21, Matthews 1-20. Middle, Staten 1-32, Harned 1-10, Case 1-6.
Records-Lower 7-3, Middle 1-9.