CLAYTON (N.J.) - All it required was a conversation among peers for the Middle Township High School football team.
The Panthers trailed Clayton, 26-24, after the Clippers marched down the field and scored the game-tying touchdown as Ian Gannon hooked up with Omari Watson with 30 seconds left to play. L.J. Connell ran in the two-point conversion to solidify a two-point lead.
Middle Township sophomore Remi Rodriguez received some words of encouragement from his friend before returning the ensuing kickoff for a touchdown with 18 seconds left to play. The Panthers squeezed past Clayton, 30-26, in a West Jersey Football League Patriot Division showdown on Friday night.
“My boy came up to me and said, 'you know what you gotta do,'" Rodriguez said smiling. "And I dapped him up and said ‘I got you.’ So I went out and got the ball, found a hole and just took off. I felt like I started slow and as the game went on, I felt like I was going with it. I just got it going in the second half."
Remi Rodriguez poses postgame with the scoreboard in the background after a win at Clayton on Friday night. Chris Baker D2 Sports Network
The Panthers threw the first punch as Jerome Licata nailed a 36-yard field goal to put his team up 3-0 with 7:58 left in the first quarter. Rodriguez would put Middle Township in the touchdown column with a five-yard touchdown to heighten the lead to 10-0.
Elijah Rivera put the Clippers on the board with his first touchdown of the day to cut the deficit to 10-6 with 2:23 left in the second quarter.
Middle Township responded on its following possession as Mark Oliver connected with Michael Zafati in the end zone. A successful two-point conversion provided a 18-6 lead heading to halftime.
Rivera found the endzone for the Clippers again about halfway through the third quarter to cut the deficit to 18-12.
Clayton’s defense shut down Middle Township on the following drive, but the Panthers charted a takeaway as Zafati recovered a fumble.
Two plays later, Watson would get a takeaway of his own, recovering a fumble and racing 63 yards to the house to tie the game up at 18 heading to the final quarter.
After forcing another turnover, the Panthers drove down the field and made it 24-18 as Oliver turned a broken pass play into a rushing score with 1:30 left in regulation.
Clayton responded, but the rest was history.
“It’s reassuring to have a back like Remi in our offense," Middle Township coach Frank Riggitano said. "I can place him at tailback, I can place him at fullback, slotback, you name it. It gives us an opportunity to do good things."
After earning their first win of the season, the Panthers will venture back to Gloucester County next week for a matchup with Gateway. Middle Township is looking to even its record at 2-2 after dropping games to Oakcrest and Glassboro.
We got to get better, but we will clean it up as we go along," Riggitano said. "We have a long way to go until the end of the season."