LOWER TOWNSHIP - Nolan Quinn and Charles Cooper made sure Thursday morning that the Anchor Bowl will stay in Middle Township High School's trophy case for another year.
The Panthers' senior quarterback and wide receiver ended their high school careers with a flourish. The duo teamed up for three touchdowns in a 31-21 victory over Lower Cape May Regional in the Thanksgiving Day rivalry.
"It's hard to see our high school careers come to an end," Cooper said. "But this is a nice way to end it. To keep the trophy for the third straight year means a lot."
When the game ended, Cooper and senior center/linebacker Kevin Hebron raced to the end zone to grab the trophy. Hebron held it aloft and then set it down as the entire team gathered around it to pose for a picture.
The plaque was created in 1996, the first year the Middle-Lower game was played on Thanksgiving. It includes an anchor taken from a boat belonging to former Lower coach Bill Garrison. Middle leads the Anchor Bowl rivalry 8-6 and the all-time series 40-20-2.
"This is always a great rivalry because it's almost always competitive," Middle coach Lee Chappine said. "The kids on these teams work as hard as anyone in South Jersey, but we don't always get the opportunity to play a team on an even playing field. We get to do that on Thanksgiving and that's what makes this game so exciting."
This edition had no shortage of thrills.
Quinn, one of southern New Jersey's most versatile players, found Cooper for a pair of long touchdowns in the first quarter and booted a 30-yard field goal to help Middle gain a 17-0 lead. Quinn completed just three passes all game. All three went to Cooper. All three were for touchdowns.
"Our main goal today was just to get a win, no matter how we did it," Quinn said. "But we also wanted to make sure we didn't come out flat. Charles has always been my go-to guy and I knew I could count on him."
Cooper snuck behind Lower's defense on the Panthers' first series and Quinn hit him in stride for a 63-yard touchdown with 7 minutes, 21 seconds left in the first quarter. Two series later, the Panthers ran the same play and produced the same result.
Cooper again got behind Lower's secondary, caught another on-the-mark toss and sprinted away from a Caper Tigers defender to complete an 87-yard TD.
"I think we just caught (Lower's defense) by surprise on the first play, but I played a trick on them the second time," Cooper said. "When I came to the line, I told (the Lower defender) that I was really tired. Then I just ran right by him."
Quinn also hit Cooper for a 9-yard TD in the third quarter that gave Middle a 24-7 lead. Quinn ended the season with 10 TD passes after throwing 13 as a junior. Cooper had eight TD receptions this season and 15 over the last two seasons.
Middle gets going
Just when it appeared the Panthers were on their way to a rout, however, Lower (1-9) rallied.
Sophomore quarterback Mike Mulligan came off the bench to spark a comeback. He was not expected to play because of an ankle injury but limped onto the field late in the second quarter. Mulligan completed 16-of-23 passes for 161 yards, including a 9-yard TD pass to senior wide receiver Dylan Vanaman early in the fourth quarter following a fake punt that kept the drive alive.
Junior running back Chris Alicea brought Lower's cheering section to life on the next series, scoring on a 1-yard plunge that cut Middle's lead to 24-21 with 5:15 left in regulation.
Alicea, who rushed for 140 yards on 24 carries, was playing running back for the second straight game after lining up at wide receiver for most of the season.
"I didn't play him at running back at first because I wasn't sure he'd be strong enough to run between the tackles," Lower coach Mike Wilson said. "But Chris is our fastest player and I had to find a way to get him the ball. I'll be second-guessing myself for not doing it sooner."
Lower, which snapped its 28-game losing streak last week with a win over Lakewood, had one more shot at pulling out a win when the defense forced Middle to punt with 2:38 remaining.
But Quinn and Cooper combined for one more play.
Quinn, who is also Middle's punter, sent a kick deep into Lower territory. Just before it crossed the goal-line for a touchback, Cooper dove and slapped the ball back inside the 1-yard line before he landed in the end zone. After Lower's drive stalled at the 22, Middle running back Ishmael Coyle sealed the win with a TD run.
"I'm going to miss all the seniors," Chappine said. "But I'm really going to miss Nolan and Charles for what they brought to our team during their careers."
Contact David Weinberg:
Middle Twp. 14 3 7 7-31
Lower Cape May 0 7 0 14-21
MT-Cooper 63 pass from Quinn. (Quinn kick)
MT-Cooper 87 pass from Quinn. (Quinn kick)
MT-Quinn 30 field goal
LCM-Alicea 7 run. (Parker kick)
MT-Cooper 9 pass from Quinn. (Quinn kick)
LCM-Vanaman 9 pass from Mulligan. (Parker kick)
LCM-Alicea 1 run. (Parker kick)
MT-Coyle 22 run. (Quinn kick)
FIRST DOWNS 14 19
RUSHING YARDS 220 144
PASSING YARDS 159 195
TURNOVERS 1 0
Rushing: Middle, Quinn 14-64, Cooper 4-63, Coyle 7-42, Williams 5-39, Smith 3-12. LCM, Alicea 24-140, Sole 2-7, Mulligan 1-6, Fletcher 4-(-3), Vanaman 1-(-6).
Passing: Middle, Quinn 3-8-159; LCM, Mulligan 16-23-161, Fletcher 2-10-34.
Receiving: Middle, Cooper 3-159; LCM, Vanaman 6-85, Parker 5-59, Hazel 2-30, Kocher 2-19, Cerwonka 1-6, Alicea 2-(-7).
Records: Middle 3-7; Lower Cape May 1-9.