By BRIAN CUNNIFF
CAPE MAY COURT HOUSE – Michael Zarfati of the Middle Township High School football team went into Friday’s Anchor Bowl with 18 catches through four games from his wide receiver position.
He was held to zero by Lower Cape May in the contest. But a catch he made on defense sealed one of the program’s most thrilling victories in recent memory.
Zarfati’s interception of a Hail Mary pass with six seconds to play served as the exclamation point on a wild 18-12 comeback victory by the injury-ravaged Panthers, who had trailed 12-0 at the half to a Tiger team that had won each of its first four games entering the contest.
The win was Middle’s 10th in 11 seasons over the Caper Tigers. Middle now leads the all-time series between the two schools, 65-37-4. The series dates back to 1922.
With wind and rain from the remnants of Hurricane Ian creating adverse weather conditions, Middle coach Frank Riggitano returned to his wing-T roots to attack the Caper Tiger defense. The result was an inspiring performance by sophomore running back Remi Rodriguez, who, despite playing at less than 100 percent due to a strained Achilles tendon, ran roughshod over the Tigers to the tune of 176 yards and two touchdowns on a workhorse 29 carries.
“We felt like we moved the ball in the first half but we didn’t finish,” Middle coach Frank Riggitano said. “We made a couple adjustments at halftime, but I think they weren’t ready for our eight-man line. I haven’t done that in a long, long time and if you run that right it can cause confusion. … I felt our plan was good. To our kids’ credit, they were phenomenal and their effort was outstanding.”
Starting the second half with poor field position at its own 14-yard line, Middle marched 86 yards on 13 plays to finally reach the end zone. Tyree Moore (10 carries, 49 yards) finished the drive with a two-yard touchdown run. Runs of 15 and 11 yards by Rodriguez and an 18-yard reception by Moore from Mark Oliver highlighted the possession.
Middle (3-2) caught a major break on the ensuing kickoff. Brian Juzaitis, pressed into duty due to an injury to regular kicker Jerome Licata, slipped on the muddy turf as he struck the football, creating what acted like an onside kick that the Panthers recovered at the Lower Cape May 45-yard line. Five plays later, Rodriguez found the end zone on his longest run of the night, an electrifying 18-yard scamper with 2:18 to play in the third quarter that tied the game at 12-12.
“Remi was champing at the bit,” Riggitano said. “He went to the doctor in the afternoon and got cleared, and we just said we’d try it in the pre-game and see how it goes. He was still limping out there but he changes so much for us because he’s a really special back. He allows us to do so many extra things. The belly (play) becomes open because of what he does on the flank.”
Lower (4-1) initially responded well to Middle’s third-quarter surge. Archie Lawler’s long kickoff return set up the Tigers just short of midfield and a pass completion from Hunter Ray to Aiden McCarraher and a 24-yard run by Isiah Wing sent Lower deep into Middle territory. But the Tigers fumbled at the 5-yard line on a second-and-one play, turning the ball over to Middle.
Middle moved the ball to midfield but was eventually forced to punt. Lower Cape May fell victim to another mistake four plays later when a high punt snap led to a sack of the punter at the Lower 10-yard line with less than two minutes to go. Two plays later, Rodriguez bulled his way into the end zone from three yards out to give Middle its first lead with 1:02 remaining.
A few plays later, Zarfati made sure his team would never lose that lead with his late interception.
“This is great for our community and it’s great for Lower’s community, too, even though I know they’re frustrated right now. I’ve lived that nightmare as a player (at Lower) losing to Middle. We only beat them once when I was there. But give Lower credit. They play very, very hard and they have some really, really good football players,” Riggitano said. “I knew we had to play our best and this was the best we’ve played since last year.
“We’re still so beat up. But if the kids keep playing hard we’re going to be competitive and we’re going to have a chance to win some more football games.”EXTRA POINTS: Lower Cape May’s helmets featured a decal with the letters “FS” in honor of longtime successful Lower Township youth football coach Frank Simonsen, who passed away last week at age 85. Simonsen, for whom the Lower Township youth football field is named, is the father of Lower Cape May athletic director and New Jersey state assemblyman Erik Simonsen. He coached youth football for more than four decades. … Zac Castellano continued his strong defensive play for Lower with an interception and a sack. He has four picks through five games. … The victory, Middle’s third straight, vaulted the Panthers squarely into the Group II playoff picture. … Rodriguez, with a homemade sign and flowers in his hand, asked a schoolmate to the Homecoming dance immediately after the game. She said yes. … McCarraher ran 14 times for 75 yards and a touchdown for Lower but left the game late in the fourth quarter with an apparent leg injury. … With his 101st career win, Riggitano pulled into a tie with Ocean City’s Gary Degenhardt as the Cape May County all-time leader in high school football head coaching victories. … Middle hosts Buena for its Homecoming game on Friday, while Lower Cape May is at home against Pitman in its second annual Military Appreciation Game the same night.