It was time to break out the victory cigar Middle Township football coach Frank Riggitano had been saving for a championship occasion.
After the Panthers defeated host Lower Cape May 21-8 to win the Anchor Bowl Wednesday night, Riggitano stood at midfield and lit the cigar he received last spring at the funeral of friend and longtime Middle Township coaching colleague Paul Yerk.
“Paul left a note when he passed that he wanted everyone to take one of his cigars,” said Riggitano, who hosted Yerk’s wife, Sally, and the Yerk children and grandchildren in the pregame locker room. “I took one and I told him I was lighting it up if we ever won a championship. And that’s what we did.”
The Panthers (8-2, 5-0) not only won the United Division of the West Jersey Football League -- their first league championship of any kind since 1969 -- they won a record eighth game in a season for the first time in program history.
Such accomplishments prompted Middle’s 21st-year coach to call the 2021 Panthers “the best football team that’s ever come out of this high school.”
David Giulian was a keystone of that success. The 5-foot-10, 190-pound senior was a dynamic force on both sides of the ball. Playing fullback, he rushed for 193 yards and two touchdowns on 28 carries. He also surprised the defense on a jet sweep by throwing a 19-yard scoring pass to sophomore Michael Zarfati with 5:42 left in the fourth quarter. That staked the Panthers to a 14-0 lead.
At linebacker, Giulian helped the defense limit Lower Cape May to 174 total yards, including 59 rushing yards by Tigers senior Marcus Hebron, who entered the game with 900 yards on the season.
“This is a great way to end it,” Giulian said. “Couldn’t want it any other way.”
Giulian credited offensive linemen Kani Perry, Marco Salgado, Nick Cruz, Maurice Matthews and Michael Camp for paving the way for 334 team rushing yards. Freshman Remi Rodriguez boosted that total with 112 yards on 17 carries.
“It starts with those five guys up front,” Giulian said. They get a good push for us, then I can perform and do what I do best.”
Lower Cape May (5-5, 4-1) kept it a one-possession game well into the fourth quarter, thanks to an opportunistic defense. The Tigers forced two turnovers before halftime to offset a 174-34 first-half yardage differential.
A key second-quarter defensive play allowed Lower to keep it close. The Tigers denied Middle Township’s monumental 20-play, 77-yard, second-quarter drive when senior Marcus Hebron forced a fumble on fourth-and-goal from the 1-yard line. Middle quarterback Brett Nabb tried to sneak for the touchdown, but was wrapped up and stripped by Hebron. Lower junior Archie Lawlor recovered near the goal line. Lawlor also tipped and intercepted a first-quarter swing pass near midfield.
“We pride ourselves on playing good defense and playing all the way through the game,” Lawlor said. “The only thing we can control is our effort, and we brought it every single snap on defense.”
The Panthers broke through with 38 seconds left in the second quarter as Giulian capped a 14-play, 64-yard drive with a six-yard scoring run. That drive devoured over eight minutes of clock.
The Tigers’ best chance to tie the game came in the third quarter after their defense stopped the Panthers on fourth-and-4 from their own 30-yard line. However, sophomore quarterback Hunter Ray’s fourth-down scramble from the 21-yard line fell two yards shy of a first down.
The Panthers responded by moving 86 yards in 15 plays to take a 14-0 lead on Giulian’s throw to Zarfati with 10:59 left in the fourth quarter.
After Lower Cape May’s next drive bogged down at Middle’s 27-yard line, the Panthers salted the game away. Giulian’s 47-yard run was the big play in a 77-yard march. He later plowed into the end zone on a determined six-yard carry. Jerome Licata’s extra point made it 21-0.
The Tigers finally dented the scoreboard with 1:22 to play on Hebron’s 9-yard run up the gut. He finished with 59 yards on 12 carries. Lawlor led the Tigers with 6 receptions for 67 yards.
“I thought we played well as a team,” Lawlor said. “You’re not going to win them all. Overall, I’m happy with our performance.”
The Anchor Bowl victory was the fourth straight for Middle Township, which extended its all-time series lead to 63-36-5.
“We’re excited,” Riggitano said, cigar in hand. “It’s great for the community, it’s great for these kids and it’s great for the fact that a lot of the key components are coming back. They have a lot to look forward to leading into the offseason.”