WILDWOOD- The Middle Township High School football team finally got to celebrate after a game.
The Panthers earned their first victory after an 0-6 start, using a big-play offense and swarming defense to earn a 40-6 victory over winless Wildwood on Friday night.
"It sure is nice to get a win," Middle quarterback Nolan Quinn said. "Things haven't gone as well for us as we had hoped this season."
Getting the win at the expense of the Warriors added to the satisfaction. Friday's nonleague contest at Maxwell Field marked the rebirth of a once-intense rivalry that had disappeared in recent years.
Middle, Wildwood and nearby Lower Cape May Regional used to play each other every season. Because the schools are located within 10 miles of each other, their games were events that included bonfires and pep rallies leading up to the showdowns.
It ended in the late 1990s, when declining numbers forced Wildwood to temporarily disband its football program and then play an independent schedule before the Warriors joined the Tri-County Conference in 2002. That left the Middle-Lower game on Thanksgiving, now known as the Anchor Bowl, as the only true rivalry game in the southern section of Cape May County.
"We're really happy we got to play this game," Middle wide receiver Charles Cooper said. "Everybody was calling it the War at the Shore this week."
Despite their matching 0-6 records, however, the game was one-sided.
Wildwood, which dressed 23 players, simply could not keep up with the stronger, faster, bigger Panthers. The Warriors hung tough for about a quarter, but then Quinn and Cooper teamed up for three touchdowns, including a pair on back-to-back offensive plays that left Middle with a commanding, 21-0 lead at halftime.
The duo - one of southern New Jersey's top quarterback-wide receiver tandems - hooked up for a 16-yard touchdown with 7 minutes, 20 seconds left in the second quarter. After a Wildwood punt, Quinn fired a pass over the middle. Cooper made a fingertip catch between two defenders and then outran them to the end zone to complete a 38-yard score.
"Wildwood is a good football team," Cooper said. "I know they don't have a win, but that's just because they don't have a lot of players. They don't have the numbers, but they have the heart."
That was evident throughout the contest. Quarterback Rick Palmer's 13-yard touchdown run in the fourth quarter was a reward for the Warriors' unwavering intensity.
A lack of depth hurt, however. Most of the players lined up on offense and defense. After a while, they were just worn down by Middle's power.
"Wildwood football is a labor of love every year," Warriors coach Rob Dieffenbach said. "But the fact that we still have 23 players after seven games tells me we are actually in a better position this year than we were last year, when we were down to 13 players.
"I actually think we matched up fairly even with Middle coming into the game. I'd like to see us play Lower again, too, because all three of us are in the same boat. We all struggle with numbers because we lose players to outside activities and other sports, like surfing."
Middle has decent depth, but several factors prevented the Panthers from fulfilling higher preseason expectations. Last week, Cooper was among about a dozen players who were out with the flu. Middle wound up suffering a 28-0 loss to Pleasantville.
Beating Wildwood should provide at least some momentum heading into the rest of the season.
"This really doesn't make up for anything," Middle coach Lee Chappine said. "We should have come into this game looking to get a playoff spot and it didn't work out. I'm happy for the kids, though. They've worked hard and sacrificed a lot this season, so it was good to see them get a win."
Contact David Weinberg:
Middle Township 6 15 19 0-40
Wildwood 0 0 6 0-6
MT-Quinn 1 run. (Kick failed)
MT- Safety (Wildwood punt goes out of back of end zone)
MT-Cooper 16 pass from Quinn. (Run failed)
MT-Cooper 38 pass from Quinn. (Quinn kick)
MT-Smith 28 run. (Quinn kick)
MT-Cooper 27 pass from Quinn. (Kick failed)
MT-Wright 9 run. (Kick failed)
MT-Palmer 13 run. (Kick failed)
TEAM STATS Middle Wildwood
First downs 18 6
Rushing 221 103
Passing 159 11
Turnovers 1 3
Rushing-Cooper 5-70, Keith 5-65, Quinn 9-46, Smith 3-38, Williams 2-12, Wright 6-5, Keith 1-2, Coyle 1-(-2), Staten 2-(-13) MT; Moody 4-44, Palmer 12-43, Hills 7-15, Degrandis 1-1 W.
Passing-Quinn 6-10-112, Wright 1-3-47 MT; Palmer 4-10-11-1, Christian 0-1-0 W.
Receiving-Cooper 4-98, Smith 2-50, Coyle 1-11 MT; Galosso 1-15, Degrandis 1-0, Moody 2-(-4) W.
Records-Middle 1-6; Wildwood 0-7.