By BRIAN CUNNIFF
CAPE MAY COURT HOUSE — Dom Caraballo finally got to handle the football Wednesday evening. His touches produced major dividends for the Middle Township High School football team.
Caraballo, limited to playing defense with essentially one arm for most of the season due to a broken thumb, had his bulky cast removed and was medically cleared to play offense in time for Wednesday’s season finale. He went on to make three big plays with the ball in Middle’s season-ending 28-7 victory over rival Lower Cape May in the Anchor Bowl in front of a limited crowd at Memorial Field.
Caraballo ran for a touchdown and intercepted two passes, returning one for another score, as Middle controlled the game over the final three quarters.
“We told him he was going to get his chances but we were still concerned about his thumb and how quickly he was going to be able to respond,” Middle coach Frank Riggitano said of Caraballo. “But during the walkthrough before the game, we could tell he had a lot of juice because he saw he was in the rotation on offense and I just knew he was going to play well tonight.”
Middle (4-4) finished the season with three straight victories, conceding a total of 17 points over those contests.
“We played very well defensively over our last four games, really,” Riggitano said. “Anytime you can play like that defensively, it keeps you in the game and you hope for a break here or there and that’s what happened over the last two weeks. And even tonight was kind of the same situation.”
A big early break gave Middle a quick lead. Five plays after David Giulian recovered the fumble of a muffed kickoff reception by Lower Cape May (4-4) to start the game, Brett Nabb hit Matthew Barcas for a nine-yard touchdown pass.
“The opening kickoff was crucial for us,” Riggitano said. “To get that and then go down and score … I was pretty confident.”
Lower responded a couple of possessions later to tie the score when Hunter Ray threw a 15-yard scoring pass to Christan Campanero four plays after hitting Archie Lawler for a 23-yard pass play.
Middle took control from there, however. Caraballo gave the Panthers the lead for good with his rushing touchdown from 10 yards out on the first play of the second quarter to cap an 11-play, 64-yard drive.
After a three-and-out by Lower, Nabb ran in from three yards out to finish off a nine-play, 73-yard drive. Nabb’s 29-yard run on the second play of the drive and his 12-yard pass to Barcas one play before his own scoring run were the big plays of the possession.
“The way it started, we never really recovered from it,” Lower coach Lance Bailey said. “When the ball starts rolling downhill, you have to be able to stop it. We were able to slow it down, but we weren’t able to stop it.”
Middle led 20-7 at the half. The 20 points represented the most scored by Middle since a 31-20 loss to Audubon on Oct. 17 in its third game of the season.
“I thought that drive (to tie the score) at the end of the game last week that tied the score (in an eventual 13-10 overtime win over Gateway) was huge for us,” Riggitano said. “That kind of stuff builds confidence and gives you momentum. We had four great days of practice coming in here. We built some things in for this game and we thought we could have some success if we executed. We had some plays where we really made some key blocks and we were able to do some good things.”
In the second half, Lower Cape May was victimized by poor field position. The Tigers forced a fumble at their own 5-yard line to prevent a score but had four of their five second-half possessions begin inside their own 25-yard line.
“Give Middle credit because in the second half we just weren’t able to get on track and get anything moving,” Bailey said. “It’s tough to have three possessions begin inside our own 10-yard line. But our kids fought. For a young football team to go 4-4, we get another year in the weight room and we’ll be better for this.”
Caraballo sealed the game early in the fourth quarter when he scored from 13 yards out. Caraballo later made a diving interception at his own 8-yard line to end Lower Cape May’s only real scoring threat of the second half midway through the fourth quarter.
The game was played in front of a sparse crowd. Only 150 spectators were permitted due to an executive order by the governor limiting the size of outdoor gatherings.
But even through all of the restrictions and with many other schools around the state shutting down operations at various points of the season, both Lower and Middle were each able to play their full allotment of eight games apiece.
“A lot has happened this year, and that goes for both of our teams,” Riggitano said. “Like I told our kids, a lot of experiences build character and we definitely had our share of character-building moments. For them to go through what they had to go through and be on the edge every day wondering if we’re playing, if we’re finishing the season, who’s canceling out, if it’s all going to get shut down … If you told me three weeks ago we’d be standing here having finished this thing out, I wouldn’t have believed it.”
Bailey credited his seniors with helping his team navigate what was a trying season for all involved.
“I can’t say enough about them,” he said. “With what we went through, to play all eight of our games and have the leadership we had … For our seniors to keep our young team on track and to get four wins out of this season, I couldn’t be happier with the leadership we had.”
Nabb, who also had an interception on defense, ran 19 times for 109 yards to lead Middle’s rushing attack. He also completed 4-of-7 passes for 45 yards. Giulian added 69 yards on 18 carries and also caught a two-point conversion pass. Caraballo gained 42 yards on five rushes.
For Lower, Ray completed 14-of-23 passes for 91 yards but was picked off three times. Lawler had six catches for 43 yards and Campanero added four catches for 28 yards. The Tigers rushed for just 48 yards as a team.
The win gives Middle Township a 62-37-4 lead in the all-time series between the two schools, which dates back to 1922. Middle leads 16-9 since the game was moved to Thanksgiving week and first dubbed the Anchor Bowl in 1996. Middle has won eight of the last nine games between the two teams. Lower’s only win during that stretch came in 2017.
(Photo gallery by Dale Gerhard.)