This year’s Anchor Bowl shapes up as one of the most significant games in series history.
Rivals Middle Township (7-2, 4-0) and Lower Cape May Regional (5-4, 4-0) enter their Thanksgiving Eve clash in Erma tied atop the United Division of the West Jersey Football League.
That means the winner of the 104th meeting will gain more than just bragging rights and possession of the Anchor Bowl Trophy; The victor also takes the league title.
“I think that's the real big picture of this game,” said Lower Cape May two-way player Archie Lawlor. “Everyone wants to win the division.”
Both programs have endured decades-long droughts since their last conference or division title. The Tigers last won a league championship when “Dallas” was the top-rated show on television in 1981. “Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In” topped the ratings in 1969, when the Panthers secured their last title.
“We've got the championship on the line and '69 was the last time,” Middle senior fullback and linebacker Dave Giulian said. “We know what's at stake and we're ready to win it.”
The traveling Anchor Bowl Trophy has resided in Middle’s trophy case for the last three years. Not only have the Panthers beaten the Tigers three straight seasons, they’ve won six of the last seven meetings to extend their all-time series lead to 62-36-5, according to Primeevents.net.
Recent results do not guarantee future success, of course. Middle Township coach Frank Riggitano knows that as well as anyone since he has experienced the rivalry from both sides. A Lower Cape May graduate, Riggitano was a senior playing for the Tigers when they snapped Middle’s 26-game series winning streak.
More recently, the veteran coach recalls taking his Panthers down Route 9 for an ill-fated 2017 matchup. Middle entered that road game with four wins, yet the one-win Tigers pulled off the 21-20 upset.
Another carrot motivating the Panthers is a possible eighth victory. Middle has not enjoyed an eight-win season since 1956.
“If they play well, that's what's going to happen,” said Riggitano, who owns a 16-4 record against his alma mater. “But with this game anything can happen. These kids have grown up together. Some of their kids have played youth football for us and gone down there, and some have played youth football there and come here. They've known each other a long time.”
A player familiar with both programs is Tigers senior Marcus Hebron. He played for the Panthers as a freshman before transferring to Lower Cape May. The 6-foot-1, 210-pound running back has rushed for six touchdowns this season while averaging six yards per carry.
Hebron shared the credit for his success with offensive linemen Quintan Hagan, Ronald Neenhold, Jacob Bey, Sean Stoner and Kody Lewis. Hebron thinks the offensive line will play a crucial role in the outcome.
“Our line has to be physical up front,” Hebron said. “We know that's one of the keys coming into this game. As far as running the ball, I just have to do what I'm supposed to do – run hard, run aggressive and we'll come out on top. I want to win this game. I've got a lot riding on this.”
Lower Cape May’s offense has improved as the season has progressed, according to coach Lance Bailey, whose 2-2 record against Middle includes wins in 2005 and 2006 with former Chicago Cubs outfielder Matt Szczur at quarterback.
That offensive improvement has mirrored the steady strengthening of the wrist on sophomore quarterback Hunter Ray’s throwing hand. He broke the wrist playing baseball last summer. Ray
has completed 42 of 90 passing attempts for 595 yards and five touchdowns. His top target, 6-foot-1 freshman Braswell Thomas, has a team-high 19 receptions for 286 yards and a TD.
Ray, Hebron and the Tigers will tangle with a Middle Township defense that limits opponents to 11 points per game. That unit is led by linebackers Giulian, Matthew Frame, Jerry White and Isiah Carr-Wing and free safety Brett Nabb. Giulian tops the Panther defense with 102 total tackles, double the total of any teammate.
A two-way standout, Giulian also paces Middle’s wing-T offense with a team-best 608 rushing yards on 85 carries.
The Panthers’ second-leading rusher is Nabb, the quarterback. The 5-foot-9, 185-pound senior is a dual threat. He has thrown for 797 yards and 13 touchdowns on 41-of-72 passing. He has rushed for 415 yards and seven scores on 68 attempts (6.1-yard avg.). He will face a LCMR defense that allows 25 ppg.
Middle’s offense scores 27 ppg behind the stout offensive line of tackles Kani Perry (6-3, 250) and Michael Camp (6-2, 310), guards Marco Juan Salgado and Maurice Matthews and center Nick Cruz. None are seniors.
“They have young linemen just as we do,” Bailey said. “They're very, very good up front. Their quarterback is exceptional. He runs the ball well and he throws the ball well. They've had our number for the last couple of years, but that's why we play the game. We'll see what happens.”
Nabb passed 200 times a season ago. He has rushed more often this fall, setting the stage for the Panthers’ effective play-action passing attack.
With the WJFL United Division title on the line, Nabb said he is looking forward to competing in one last Anchor Bowl, a game he considers special regardless of what’s on the line.
“It's meant a lot to me, Middle vs. Lower, ever since I was little in first grade,” Nabb said. “There's a lot at stake here, obviously, but it’s Middle Township vs. Lower Township. Old-school football. It should be fun.”