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Lower, Middle meet Friday in different kind of Anchor Bowl


One of South Jersey high school football’s oldest rivalry games is about to be replayed on Friday, when Lower Cape May makes the short trip to Memorial Field in Cape May Court House to take on Middle Township.

This season marks the first time since 1995 that the teams won’t play on Thanksgiving Day.

The game is set for a 7 p.m. start and will air live on 98.7 The Coast radio, with a live video stream available at the Coast Sports Today Facebook page.

Changes made by the movers and shakers in New Jersey high school football – such as the earlier start to the season and the expansion of the postseason – have made it extremely difficult for many schools to keep Thanksgiving rivalries alive. Lower and Middle certainly fall into that category, and now this season they’ll play on the final Friday of September instead of on Thanksgiving Day or Thanksgiving Eve.

“It’s going to be different, that’s for sure,” Lower coach Lance Bailey said. “But that’s the changing times and we’re all going to have to get used to it.”

Bailey paused before adding with a laugh, “And it’s definitely going to be different not playing them in the freezing-cold weather.”

It might not be freezing cold, but the weather sure is expected to make an impact. With remnants from Hurricane Ian traveling up the East Coast, Friday’s game most certainly will be affected by high winds. As of Thursday afternoon, rain was expected to begin in the hour or two prior to game time as well.

This year marks the 105th meeting of the two schools. Middle holds the all-time lead in the series, 63-37. There have been four ties. The teams first met in 1922 and have played at least once every season since 1948. The rivalry had been played on Thanksgiving Day or Thanksgiving Eve in every season from 1996 through 2021. The game was dubbed the Anchor Bowl prior to the 1996 game, in reference to the trophy created prior to that contest that goes to the winner to keep for one year. A new trophy was constructed a couple of years ago to replace the aging original.

Middle has won nine of the last 10 games between the rivals, with Lower’s lone victory in that stretch coming in 2017.

Lower Cape May enters this year’s contest unbeaten at 4-0. The Tigers are coming off a 47-6 victory over Wildwood, in which junior quarterback Hunter Ray threw for 130 yards and two touchdowns and also ran for two scores. Aiden McCarraher rushed for 87 yards as Lower continued to showcase a multi-dimensional offensive attack.

For Lower, four wins in the first four games is rather notable. It’s the first time in 12 seasons the Tigers have done so. But Middle is probably the most talented team Lower will have faced so far.

“It’s Middle, so that alone makes this a big game,” Bailey said. “But we’ve taken the philosophy that we just want to go 1-0 each week. We’ll try to continue to work like that whether it’s Middle or not. But, of course, this is a big one for everybody.”

Middle is also coming off a victory, a 14-0 decision over Gateway that gave coach Frank Riggitano his 100th career victory. Mark Oliver tossed a pair of long touchdown passes to Michael Zarfati as Middle overcame five turnovers to get the win.

The Panthers have won two straight after losing their first two games, despite being severely hampered by injuries. Talented starting running back Remi Rodriguez is a game-time decision after missing last week’s game with Achilles tendon soreness.

“We’ve repeatedly had to move people around all over the place to hide the fact that we’ve had so many injuries,” Riggitano said. “That’s just the way it has to be right now.

“The big challenge with Lower is that they’re much better prepared with their system that Lance is running. They’ve got two full years under their belt with him now. They’re putting the whole package together, so it’s definitely going to be a challenge for us, no question about it.”

Talk to 10 people about this game and five might tell you Lower Cape May is the favorite. The five others might favor Middle Township. The teams just might be that evenly matched.

“The one thing I know for sure is, the kids on both sides are going to play extremely hard and I think it’s going to be a good game,” Riggitano said. “Everyone likes to compare scores and do what I call are newspaper matchups. Well, five years ago I thought we had the way better team and they came in and beat us, 21-20, so there’s proof right there that anything can happen in this game. As it always is in football, it’s going to come down to who executes the best and who makes the least amount of mistakes.”