EAST RUTHERFORD, NJ — The West Essex Knights football team, a team that had its doubts at the beginning of the season, became the North 2, Group 3 State Champions after a 28-14 victory over Voorhees on Saturday morning.
“It’s the best feeling in the world—these kids deserve it, they work hard,” said Knights head coach Chris Benacquista. “The team came together real nice. I’m so proud of the fact that we weren’t expected to be here and we are. I just can’t tell you how great it feels.”
West Essex came out with an aggressive attitude from the onset, determined to come away with a victory. A normally ground-oriented offense produced four touchdowns through the air via quarterback Zach Lemanski, who finished with 151 pass yards on the game.
“I’ve never had a game like this—with this crowd in this environment and, man, it was something,” said Lemanski.
For Lemanski, the career-best, four-touchdown game could not have come at a better time. The junior signal caller missed more than a month and most of the playoffs due to a hip injury that seemed to miraculously heal in time for the biggest game of his high school career.
“I was confident in myself [in coming back from injury], I have been all year so I kept playing and did my thing,” said Lemanski.
The Knights opened up the scoring in the first quarter with their third offensive play. Lemanski connected with game-breaking running back William Perez on a 64-yard touchdown pass that set the tone for the contest.
“My coach gave me a chance, I just do what I could,” said Perez. “Zach [Lemanski] threw me a perfect ball, I adjusted to it a little bit, and did what I had to do.”
For their coach, the decision to be abnormally aggressive was a no-brainer given the magnitude of the game.
“[Lemanski] was throwing the ball perfectly in warm ups so we figured, ‘Why not take a shot early?’” said Benacquista.
West Essex continued its aggressive play after an interception set the team up with solid field position at its own 45-yard line. Benacquista elected to run a fake punt with Dorian Gashi on fourth and four to continue the drive.
“It’s just being aggressive in a game like this,” said Benacquista. “I looked at the alignment and thought that we had it.”
Several plays later, on third and 25, Lemanski found Vincent Scaglia for the second Knights score of the game. For Scaglia, the 25-yard touchdown was his third touchdown of the playoffs. The score put West Essex up solidly, 14-0, with 10:02 remaining in the half.
“Coach said we were going to throw the ball a little bit more than we do and we sure did,” said Lemanski.
Voorhees refused to quit, answering back on the next drive. The Vikings, aided by a 30-plus-yard halfback option, marched on a seven play 66-yard scoring drive to put the pressure back on West Essex before the half.
The Knights came out confident in the second half, which has been their staple all season long. Utilizing a run game from Perez, Anthony Sangillo, and Vincent Scaglia the Vikings defense began to soften.
Having the Voorhees team on their heels once again Lemanski aired the ball out finding Phil Lutz on a 46-yard passing play to cap the five-play, 80-yard scoring drive for the 21-7 Knights lead and eventual decisive blow.
“We always like getting the ball out of the half because it could really put the nail in the coffin to a team,” said Benacquista. “So getting the ball and being able to drive down the field and score is enormous.”
Having a two-score lead was more than enough for the Knights, who were stout defensively for the game. The unit managed to shut down the next two Viking drives with a turnover on downs and fumble recovery, which gave West Essex the ball with less than seven minutes left in the game.
The unit finished with three sacks, two turnovers, and an impressive six-for-six on third-down conversion attempts.
“[The defense] is so disciplined, so fast, so physical, our game plan is great, our coaching staff does a wonderful job and that’s a great offense we shut down today,” said Benacquista.
West Essex utilized its last offensive drive to grind out most of the remaining clock. A fourth-down conversion by Lemanski to Perez resulted in a 21-yard touchdown pass for the Knights’ final score of the contest.
Perez finished the contest with 117 rushing yards, two receptions for 85 yards and two touchdowns.
“That’s like the icing on the cake, there’s really nothing better,” said Perez.
For Perez, it was a serendipitous moment, as the junior notched the last touchdown of both the first game and last game of the season. He was able to enjoy hoisting the trophy with a team he’s bonded with over the course of the season.
“This is hands down the best feeling ever and I did it with the only people I wanted to—my brothers,” said Perez.
A late touchdown from Voorhees with 21 seconds left put the game at a respectable score at 28-14, but had no bearing on the outcome of the game. Ultimately, West Essex accomplished its mission of state supremacy and the Knights’ first championship since 2011.
“It’s a really fun team to be around and it’s exciting,” said Benacquista of his team’s accomplishment.