WEST CALDWELL, NJ — The West Essex Knights football team is headed to the North 2, Section 3 championship after a resilient 28-14 victory over Rahway on Friday night.
“It’s been a lot of semifinal disappointments these last couple of years, but this team is special,” said West Essex head coach Chris Benacquista. “They are really, really resilient and when they believe in something they go out and do it and good things happen.”
The Knights had a key turning point midway through the second quarter. Down 14-7 after a long-scoring drive from Rahway, the Knights were looking for a spark. Junior Phil Lutz provided that spark with a 93-yard kickoff return for a touchdown that pulled the momentum back in West Essex’s favor.
“I was going crazy [when I scored] I was so happy,” said Lutz. “I think it was the turning point [because] it gave the entire team energy, everybody on the sideline started getting up, we started getting crazy and playing much better.”
The Knights quickly forced a four-and-out on the ensuing Indian drive. The stand set West Essex up on its own 46-yard line, where the Knights embarked on a five-play scoring drive.
Anthony Sangillo and William Perez contributed on the drive with key first-down runs to set the Knights up inside the 10-yard line. Vincent Scaglia capped the drive with a five-yard touchdown run for the game’s decisive score with 3:48 remaining in the first half to put West Essex up 21-14.
“We talk about winning each play…each play is it’s own animal and when you get that momentum back you feel good about yourself and play good on that next play,” said Benacquista. “It comes down to executing and we did that more than them today.”
Defensively, after a few first-half hiccups, the West Essex unit rebounded nicely. The Knights proceeded to blank the Indian offense for the entire second half, allowing only five first downs while forcing two interceptions and a sack.
“This time of year the weather gets colder, the scoring goes down and you have to rely on defense and it’s been a trademark of ours,” said Benacquista.
Having the lead in hand, the top-seeded Knights decided to ride an efficient running game onward to victory. Will Perez, who earlier in the game tied the contest up at 7-7 on a 65-yard run, added to his impressive performance with a game-clinching 47-yard touchdown run early in the fourth quarter. Perez finished with an unofficial 170 rushing yards on the evening.
“It really was my blocking [on the scoring plays] once I saw [the hole] I took it and I went,” said Perez. “[It was] two big momentum changes in the game.”
For West Essex, the victory marks a turning point for unfinished business from last season. After falling in the semifinals on their home turf, Perez and others have redeemed themselves in 2017.
“Last year, walking off the field at the exact same time, [losing], it was the worst feeling of my life and this year we used the same motivation to make sure we never felt that feeling again and we worked all summer just all for this,” said Perez.
Despite achieving one of their goals, the Knights are not finished as they have a date with destiny in the North 2, Group 3, Section Championship game against Voorhees on Nov. 30.
“[We have to] keep working our butts off, getting after it during the week, preparing and being able to play our game,” said Benacquista.