By BRIAN CUNNIFF
CAPE MAY COURT HOUSE — It didn’t take long for the Middle Township High School football team to set the course for its fifth victory in as many games.
Freshman Remi Rodriguez’s 90-yard kickoff return for a touchdown — created through a series of his own nifty moves and a tremendous block by teammate Isiah Carr-Wing — gave Middle the lead on the first play of the game and led to an eventual 41-0 victory over Clayton in a West Jersey Football League United Division contest Friday.
The win moved Middle to 5-0 overall, 3-0 in West Jersey United games, and marked the first time in 61 seasons the Panthers have started the season with five straight wins. That 1960 team, coached by Fred Grosse, finished 6-1-2. The 2021 team will look to make it six straight when it travels to Collingswood next Friday.
Being 5-0 “matters in the sense that the community is beginning to recognize what the kids are doing,” Middle coach Frank Riggitano said. “When I started as an assistant here in 1987, all I wanted was to bring recognition to the kids playing in this program. What we’re doing now is a culmination of what’s happened here over the years. We had a lot of really, really good players and really, really good teams get close (to winning a division championship) but couldn’t get over the hump. If we keep playing the way we’re playing and limit our mistakes, we’re going to have a heck of a chance to erase that situation but we have a long way to go yet.”
Middle forced a three-and-out by Clayton after Rodriguez’s kickoff return for a touchdown and quickly went 52 yards in 12 plays to score again when Brett Nabb ran in from one yard out.
After a Carr-Wing interception, Middle went 61 yards in 10 plays, another Nabb one-yard scoring run finishing the drive.
The Panthers led 21-0 at the half.
“We had so many drives, which was good to see,” Riggitano said. “It was nice to string together some series and show some different looks and get some different things going.”
Middle scored on its first offensive play of the second half when Nabb threw beautifully to Michal Zarfati for a 41-yard touchdown pass one play after Nabb recorded an interception on defense.
Nabb later tossed four yards to David Giulian for another score and Carr-Wing added the final Middle touchdown on a two-yard run.
Nabb finished 6 for 7 for 89 yards and two touchdowns and added 32 yards rushing and two scores on six carries. Giulian ran 11 times for 79 yards, caught three passes for 31 yards and again seemed to be in on every tackle on defense.
Middle ran for 154 yards as a team.
Defensively, the Panthers limited Clayton (2-3) to only eight first downs, four of which came on the Clippers’ final possession in the waning minutes of the fourth quarter.
“We’ve done well so far because our kids listen and they do the things they need to do,” Riggitano said. “For us to have been successful with the way we’re running our offense and for the defense to have another shutout, we’re in good shape. We just have to stay healthy. Health is a big thing as you get to this part of the season.
“This group is unique. They really have a want that I haven’t seen around here in a long, long time. The community is really getting behind them, the kids in school are behind them and hopefully we can keep it going.”
Through five games, Middle has rushed for 873 yards and thrown for 603 yards as a team. The team has also yet to turn the ball over and has committed just a handful of penalties per game through the first five games.
“It has a lot to do with the way we practice,” Riggitano said. “We do strip drills and ball-security drills and then we’ll run them if they jump offside just to develop the mindset that certain mistakes can kill you. You’re in a pretty good frame of mind to have avoided those kinds of things so far.”
Middle’s Jerome Licata was 5 for 6 on extra-point tries. His lone miss was on a blocked kick after a poor snap. Licata is now 19 for 22 on PATs this season.
Middle also won its final three games of the shortened 2020 season, giving the program a current eight-game winning streak.