By BRIAN CUNNIFF
CAPE MAY COURT HOUSE — Jerome Licata enjoyed an experience that football kickers can often only dream about.
Licata booted a pair of pressure field goals, including the winner in overtime, as Middle Township rallied for a dramatic 13-10 victory over Gateway Friday.
Licata first kicked a 25-yarder on the final play of regulation to tie the score, before converting another from 20 yards out to end the game and set off a wild celebration by Middle’s players on the Memorial Field turf.
“He’s only a sophomore and it takes a lot for a 16-year-old kid to have that kind of pressure — not once but twice — and come through in those situations,” Middle coach Frank Riggitano said. “It says a lot about his character. He’s got a good foot and he’s got a ton of potential to be a kicker in college down the road. He works at it and he’s going to do some good things.”
Licata even having a chance to become the hero seemed unlikely late in the game. Trailing 10-7, Middle (3-4) fumbled the ball away with 3 minutes, 39 seconds remaining.
But Middle’s Albert Hickman recovered a Gateway (2-4) fumble on the very next play, giving the Panthers another chance.
What followed was a remarkable 17-play drive that featured numerous twists and turns to set up the first of Licata’s field goals.
Middle twice kept the possession alive by converting fourth-down plays, the second of which was a sliding catch by Matt Barcas on fourth-and-14 that gave the Panthers a first down by inches at the Gateway 8-yard line. Brett Nabb spiked the ball on the next play to stop the clock, before Licata extended the game by calmly converting his kick as time expired.
Gateway had the first possession of overtime, but Middle’s defense quickly denied the Gators. David Giulian recorded a tackle for a four-yard loss on second down, before Nabb ended the possession with his second interception of the game on the next play.
On Middle’s ensuing overtime possession, an 11-yard run by Nabb on a third-and-1 play allowed the Panthers to move the ball to the Gateway 5-yard line. Three running pays totaled just two yards, so Licata came on to attempt another kick on fourth down. His try wasn’t struck perfectly but was certainly struck well enough as it sailed inside the left upright to seal the comeback victory.
The game was scoreless at halftime, both teams struggling to put together long drives. Nabb ended the best Gateway threat with his first interception at the 5-yard line midway through the second quarter.
Gateway broke the deadlock on the first possession of the second half when Ryan Rossmaier booted a 32-yard field goal.
Gateway threatened again on its next possession, but Giulian recovered a fumble at the 13-yard line to stop the drive.
A few minutes later, Middle was gifted a possession at the Gateway 20-yard early in the fourth quarter following a muffed punt, the Panthers’ Eric Smith recovering the miscue. Six plays later, Nabb dove across the goal line from three yards out and Licata’s extra point gave Middle a 7-3 lead.
Gateway retook the lead with 4:48 to go when Michael Scambia connected with Deshawn Woodall on a 49-yard touchdown pass.
But just when Middle seemed out of it, the Panthers rallied at the finish and came away with their second riveting victory in as many weeks, following up a 7-0 win over Pennsville during which Middle made three defensive stops inside the three-yard line with less than a minute to play.
“I’ve been proud of a lot of teams in all my years of doing this, but never more prouder than this group for what they’ve done the last two weeks,” Riggitano said. “They dug in when they had to dig in. They could have quit after that touchdown pass with four minutes left. But they hung in there and then we went 60-some yards at the end and the overtime went our way. We really did a lot of good things at the end of this game.”
Middle Township will close the season Wednesday at 5 p.m. against Lower Cape May in the annual Anchor Bowl.