NORTH CALDWELL, NJ — As the defendants of the 2017 state football title, the West Essex Knights have set their expectations equally as high for the upcoming 2018 season.

The season begins at home for the Knights on Friday at 7 p.m. against Hanover Park.

“We consider ourselves a program that’s in the mix to win a championship every year, and every year that’s our goal,” said head coach Chris Benacquista.

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The Knights will return starting quarterback Zach Lemanski, who battled back from an injury to play in the state championship game in 2017 and produced multiple touchdown passes. Despite his injury last year, Lemanski managed to throw 13 touchdowns and had one interception.

“[Lemanski] has gotten bigger, faster, stronger,” said Benacquista. “He’s really worked hard in the offseason to improve his body and his arm. Besides being a great football player, he’s a tremendous leader and one of our captains.”

Joining Lemanski is star running back and safety Will Perez. The senior was a force last year, rushing for 935 yards and nine touchdowns. Perez will be all around the ball once again as both a ball carrier and sure-tackling safety.

“Perez is one of the more dynamic players in North Jersey,” said Benacquista.

Phil Lutz will head up the wide receiving corps for West Essex as a two-way threat as a receiver and returner. Last year, Lutz eclipsed 600 receiving yards while adding six touchdowns of his own to a run-first offense.

“[Lutz] had a great year as a receiver,” said Benacquista.

West Essex’s key concern will be the offensive line, which has several question marks. The surest bet is at right tackle, where junior Bardhyl Gashi will anchor down the side.

Gashi will be joined on the right side by fellow junior Vito Benevenga. Senior Mike Finetti is the only other returning starter at the center position and will round out the offensive line with fellow seniors Mike Cuozzo at left guard and Peter Petronczak at tackle.

“Up front, if we can really get our line where we need it to be, that will really make our offense more effective,” said Benacquista.

On the defensive side of the ball, the Knights’ strength will come from the back end, where three of the four starters return in the secondary. In addition to Will Perez, West Essex will utilize Phil Lutz and Nicholas Celentano to lock down the corner spots. Veteran corner Joseph D’Albo will move over to the free safety position to give the Knights more speed on the field.

“We like our speed and athleticism in the secondary,” said Benacquista.

The linebacking group consists of several key players returning with experience, which Benacquista said could be a strength for this year’s team.

Senior Luke Dignazio heads up the group as a versatile “will” linebacker who made 35 tackles, one sack and a forced fumble in 2017. Fellow senior Wes Ache joins him along with sophomore newcomer Vincent Panzarino.

Rounding out the unit is the most inexperienced cluster of the group. Gashi, who will play the nose-guard position, will be joined by Mike Finetti, while Mike Cuozzo and a host of other players will be asked to eat up blocks.

“We’re replacing our entire defensive line, which will be a challenge,” said Benacquista.

West Essex will look to continue their championship run when the season opens on Friday night.

“I’m happy with the way camp has been going,” said Benacquista. “There’s been a lot of progress, but you never know until that first game.”

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