By BRIAN CUNNIFF
There’s always plenty of anticipation, pageantry and drama in the runup to the annual Anchor Bowl football game between Lower Cape May Regional and Middle Township high schools.
But this year, there’s so much more.
The winner of the game, scheduled for Wednesday at 6 p.m. at Steven Steger Memorial Field in Erma, will be crowned the West Jersey Football League’s United Division champion. Both teams come into the game unbeaten in division play.
The game will air live on 98.7 The Coast radio, with a live video stream available at CoastSportsToday.com.
Lower (5-4 overall, 4-0 WJFL United) has not won a division championship outright since claiming the Cape-Atlantic National Conference title in 1980. The Tigers also shared the CAL National Conference crown with St. Joseph in 1982.
For Middle (7-2 overall, 4-0 WJFL United), the title drought is even longer. You have to go all the way back to 1959 to find the Panthers’ last outright title, when they won the CAL National. Middle later shared National Conference titles with Mainland in 1964 and Hammonton in 1969.
Needless to say, it’s been a long time for both programs.
“This doesn’t happen very often and when it does you have to take advantage of it,” Lower coach Lance Bailey said. “The kids are excited for the opportunity. This program hasn’t had this type of opportunity in a long, long time.”
Middle coach Frank Riggitano echoed those sentiments, adding that there’s an obvious added twist to this year’s version of the Anchor Bowl, making the game much more than just about bragging rights.
“Obviously the kids and the community are very excited,” said. “Our kids have worked very, very hard all year and they deserve this opportunity Wednesday night.
“It’s the culmination of a very long season. A lot of people don’t realize it, but the kids on both sides have been out there since June, so it’s a good almost six months they’ve been going at this. To have an opportunity to play not just for that Anchor trophy but also for a division title is great for both sides.”
The players have been anticipating the contest for weeks now.
“This is the biggest game of the year because we’re playing for a championship,” said Lower Cape May senior two-way lineman Sean Stoner. “It’s the biggest game of my life, honestly.”
The seniors on both sides are getting the chance to play for a title in their final game. It’s something that simply doesn’t happen often at the high school level.
“The Anchor Bowl is a big game as it is because it’s against our rival,” Middle senior two-way starter Matt Frame said. “To have it be for a division championship, it’s going to be crazy. The fans are going to be nuts and it should be a packed house.
“I’m sad it’s going to be my last game but it could also be the best game ever.”
The host Caper Tigers have been idle since a Nov. 4 loss to Collingswood in an NJSIAA consolation game.
Lower’s offense is led by senior running back Marcus Hebron, who has scored six touchdowns and enters the game needing exactly 100 yards to reach 1,000 rushing yards for the season. He’s also returned two interceptions for scores on defense.
Junior Archie Lawler is also a top playmaker for Lower. He’s caught 14 passes for 162 yards and is one of the top defensive players in the WJFL United Division.
Freshman Braswell Thomas leads the Tigers with 19 receptions for 286 yards. Sophomore quarterback Hunter Ray has passed for 595 yards and five touchdowns. Another sophomore, Mike Cronin, has caught two touchdown passes. And a freshman, Dennis Sera, leads the team with five interceptions.
“They’ve had three weeks to prepare and we haven’t, so I would expect them to maybe throw some wrinkles we haven’t seen and we’ll have to be ready for that and sound with our assignments,” Riggitano said of Lower Cape May. “They scored 32 points in their last game so they have the ability to be explosive at times.
“As usual in a game like this, we’ll have to make sure we don’t get carried away and lost in emotion.”
Middle Township last played Nov. 11 when it beat Gateway, 36-8, in an NJSIAA consolation game six days after falling to Haddonfield in a Group II playoff game.
Middle features one of the region’s top quarterbacks in senior Brett Nabb. He’s completed 57 percent of his passes (41 for 72) for 797 yards and 13 touchdowns and also has rushed 66 times for 402 yards and seven scores.
Senior David Giulian is also a major asset for the Panthers. He’s rushed for 570 yards and six touchdowns and caught 10 passes for three more scores while also leading the team in tackles with 92 (16 for loss) from his middle linebacker position.
Sophomore Michael Zarafati is Middle’s top receiver, with 18 catches for 420 yards and six touchdowns. Freshman Remi Rodriguez (367 yards) and sophomore Isiah Carr-Wing (222 yards) have also shown the ability to run the football.
“We have to somehow control their quarterback-running back situation with Brett Nabb and Giulian,” Bailey said of Middle. “Brett’s an all-league quarterback and Giulian is an incredible player so we have to do our best there. But then they also have other kids you have to be aware of. We have to play fundamentally sound football.
“More than anything, we have to worry about us and make sure we stick to assignment football. We have to do what we do best. Whatever opportunities we may be presented, we have to take advantage of them.”
Middle holds a 62-37-4 advantage 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 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.
None of those past results matters when the teams line up against one another Wednesday. One of them will go home with a championship.
“I think it’s great to have this kind of excitement this late in the year,” Riggitano said. “The game has always had heightened emotions because of the competitiveness of the two schools but in the past we’ve also both been playing out the string. To have a championship at stake, this is really something special for the kids, the coaches and the fans on both sides.”