By BRIAN CUNNIFF
ERMA — Two high school boys soccer teams that are expected to battle for top honors in the Cape-Atlantic United Conference met in the season opener Tuesday.
Nothing was really settled, except to say both teams are pretty darn good.
Lower Cape May started well and Middle Township finished with a flourish but after 80 minutes of regulation and 20 minutes of extra time the teams were forced to settle for a 1-1 draw.
“I think (the conference race) is going to come down to the two of us, so it’s almost unfortunate that we have to play each other first right out of the gate,” Lower coach Dennis Elia said. “I believe we’re the best two teams in the conference. When we play them again (on Sept. 29), I really think it’s going to come down to who wants it more.”
Lower played on the front foot for most of the first 30 minutes and got a long-distance goal from Andrew Weber on a well placed shot from about 23 yards. Middle goalkeeper Devon Bock made a diving effort and got a hand on the shot but couldn’t stop the ball from nicking the left post and rolling into goal.
Middle grew into the game from there and began to assert itself more toward the end of the first half. The Panthers went on to dominate the second half, with tidy work by center back Taj Turner and some tremendous stops by Anderson Ryan in goal allowing Lower to hold its slim advantage.
But Middle finally equalized with 18 minutes remaining. Steve Berrodin’s cross from a free kick was cleared by the Lower defense, but Middle’s Tommy Shagren popped the ball back into the mix before teammate Landon Osmundsen flicked the ball past Ryan and into the goal.
Lower Cape May’s players and coaches appealed for an offside infraction on Middle on the play, but the officials waved off the inquiries and allowed the goal to stand.
Middle went on to create more chances late in regulation and in extra time. Ryan made a ridiculous stop of a tremendous shot by Middle’s Austin Carr from the top of the penalty area, Ryan leaping toward the right post and parrying the ball away with one hand.
In the first period of extra time, Lower Cape May may have caught a break when a clumsy challenge on a hard-charging Berrodin inside the penalty area wasn’t judged to be a foul and a resulting penalty kick by the officials. Later, in the second period of extra time, Berrodin missed the crossbar by mere inches on a free kick from 20 yards.
“Anderson made some all-world saves. The one with the one hand was unbelievable,” Elia said. “Taj was phenomenal in the back. Without him and our goalkeeper, we probably lose that game by two or three goals.”
Elia was pleased with his team’s effort but rued what he felt was a lack of fitness.
“Middle won the second half and the overtime,” Elia said. “I think it was fatigue and fitness on our end. We got tired and they definitely took over. They seemed like they were more fit. I told our guys we have to work on that.”
Middle’s adjustment to move Berrodin from center midfield to striker paid dividends. He proved to be a handful for the Caper Tiger defense over the final 50 minutes.
“I thought we picked it up very well as the game went on,” Middle coach Scott Kurkowski said. “We started moving the ball, playing calm. It seemed like we had too many juices flowing for the first half hour but once we settled in things looked a lot better for us and we got a few chances.
“Their goalkeeper is phenomenal. Give him all the credit in the world. He made a couple game-changing saves. He might’ve saved three goals. He did awesome work for them.”
Like Elia, Kurkowski is already anticipating the teams’ next meeting.
“There are a couple (conference) games in there that we can’t look past, of course, but I’m definitely looking forward to the next game at our place,” he said. “Lower’s done an outstanding job building their program up the last couple years and this was an awesome battle today. I almost wish we could play another 10 minutes.”
At the very least, they’ll get to play 80 more later this month.