WILLINGBORO TOWNSHIP — In the playoffs for the first time since 2004, the Middle Township High School football team took a 13-9 lead over Willingboro into the fourth quarter.
But the No. 6-seeded Panthers (5-4) fell short in their third-ever playoff game as the No. 3 seed Chimeras (6-3) scored 14 unanswered points to win the South Jersey Group II quarterfinal 23-13 on Friday.
“I’m so proud of them. It’s incredible what they have done,” said a visibly distraught Middle coach Frank Riggitano after the game.
Middle has relied all season on their three-headed senior rushing attack of Nigel Case, Terrance Toney and Zack Vogelei. But Vogelei went down with an injury in the first half and Willingboro shut down Toney.
Before Vogelei was injured, he was running extremely hard and Willingboro had a tough time stopping him. He rushed for 69 yards on five carries.
“I feel bad for Zack,” said coach Riggitano. “It’s a stinger. He’s been battling it all year long.”
With Vogelei’s injury and Toney’s ineffectiveness, Middle Township called on sophomore Yamire McNeil to help carry the load. McNeil rewarded Riggitano’s decision with some hard running. He finished the game with 12 carries for 64 yards.
Trailing 7-0, with the time running down in the first half, Riggitano decided to gamble and went for it on fourth and goal at the 7-yard line. Quarterback Joe Durso lined up and took the snap under center and stood in the pocket as if he was going to pass. As a defender raced toward him, he made a shovel pass to Toney who broke a tackle on his way for the score. The teams went into the half tied at 7.
In the third quarter, Willingboro drove down all the way to the 1-yard line. But, Middle dug in and made a terrific goal line stand, forcing Willingboro turn it over on downs.
However, on the next play, the Panthers were stopped in the end zone for a safety, giving Willingboro a 9-7 lead. On Willingboro’s next possession, they started to drive down the field again, but coughed up the football and Middle Township recovered.
The Panthers took over on their own 35-yard line and quickly drove down into Willingboro’s territory, thanks to a few hard carries by Case.
Lining up at the Chimeras’ 39, Case took a handoff on the left side, made two defenders miss with a nice cut and ran it in for the score, giving Middle Township a 13-9 lead. However, the extra point was no good, so the score remained 13-9.
Willingboro answered with a quick drive of their own and running back Robert Cleveland capped it off with an 18-yard run.
Cleveland was unstoppable for most of the game, but really did his damage in the second half. He ended the game with 203 yards rushing on 30 carries.
“The one thing I was discouraged about, and we had worked on it, was our tackling. What we didn’t do well was tackle,” Riggitano said.
The game turned on Middle Township’s next possession. After a great kickoff return by Toney into Willingboro territory, the Panthers attempted a reverse and ended up fumbling and giving the ball back to the Chimeras.
“We have some momentum. We ran the kickoff back into their territory. We talked as a staff and we thought that they were over penetrating and we thought the reverse would be there and it was, but we botched the exchange,” Riggitano said.
Cleveland did the rest for the Chimeras and put the game away with four minutes left when he added his second rushing touchdown of the game. Willingboro will play the winner of today’s game between No. 7 seed Cinnaminson and No. 2 seed Cedar Creek.
Although, the Panthers have been eliminated from the playoffs, their season is not over. They take on rival Lower Cape May Regional on Thanksgiving morning in the Anchor Bowl.
“They’ve got to be ready to go,” Riggitano said.