PARSIPPANY, NJ -- A quarter-and-a-half into its sectional championship game against Parsippany Hills, the West Essex football team had a four-point lead and some momentum gleaned from a standout defensive effort in the early-going.
But Parsippany Hills turned the quarter--and the game--around with two big special teams plays, rallying with two touchdowns in the last four minutes of the half to take the lead en route to a 38-21 victory over the Knights for the Section 2, Group 3 championship Friday night.
West Essex (9-3) was seeking its second championship in the last three years, but to do it, the Knights needed to correct the issues that led to their 35-7 loss to Parsippany Hills in the regular season. One of those issues was defending Parsippany Hills' potent passing game, and, in the first half, West Essex intercepted two passes to short-circuit the Vikings' air attack.
After Parsippany Hills (10-2) took a 3-0 lead on a 20-yard field goal with 2:55 left in the first quarter, West Essex moved 63 yards in 11 plays to take the lead. Quarterback Nick Ciaglia completed a 33-yard pass to Chris Corbo (who made a breathtaking one-handed catch) to convert a third-and-15 play and give the Knights a first down at the Par Hills 35.
Eight plays later, Ciaglia sneaked in from the 1 with 9:52 left in the half and Tyler Logan kicked the first of his three extra points to give West Essex a 7-3 lead. Parsippany Hills' next two possessions resulted in an interception by Ciaglia and a punt. Corbo had the first interception for the Knights' defense early in the first quarter.
The tide shifted the Vikings' way, though, when a high snap on a West Essex punt attempt resulted in a 17-yard loss and Parsippany Hills taking over at West Essex' 31-yard line with 4:27 left in the half. From there, it took the Vikings just two pass plays to score and take a 10-7 lead on a 9-yard pass from J.D. Breslauer to E.J. Comerford.
Breslauer finished with five TD passes, completing 20 of 29 passes for 237 yards. Comerford caught 10 passes for 111 yards and three TDs.
West Essex' next possession also ended in a punt attempt after three plays. This time, however, Logan not only got the punt off, he unloaded a fine kick deep into Parsippany Hills' territory. It rolled to a virtual stop, and looked like it was about to be downed, when Vikings' return man Dennis Wilson surprised everyone in the packed stadium by reaching down to pick up the still-live football, racing toward his left sideline and then speeding downfield for a stunning 70-yard return to the West Essex 15-yard line with 1:33 left in the second quarter.
"Their kid made a good play," West Essex head coach Chris Benacquista said. "Our special teams coverage fell asleep a bit on the play (before the ball was whistled dead)."
Seven plays later, with four seconds left in the half, Breslauer dropped back from the 1-yard line and hit Comerford with a fade pass to the right corner of the end zone for a TD. The extra point gave Parsippany Hills a 17-7 lead going into the half.
When Parsippany Hills also received the kickoff to start the second half, they needed just four big chunk plays to move 73 yards to another score and a 24-7 lead on the third Breslauer-to-Comerford TD pass in less than six minutes of elapsed time--this one a pass to the flat that covered 28 yards down the sideline.
With the temperature dropping and the icy winds picking up, West Essex regrouped to put together an impressive 65-yard drive in which all nine plays came on the ground. Fullback Ryan Coyle had three carries for 40 yards in the series before Ciaglia took it in from the 1 and Logan kicked the PAT to bring the Knights back within 10, 24-14, with 6:26 left in the third period.
"We tried our best out there, but they made plays and we didn't," said Benacquista, whose team did a solid job defending the run, holding Parsippany Hills to 69 yards on 31 rushing attempts with defensive tackle Bardhyl Gashi helping stuff the interior lanes.
But any hopes that the scoring drive would rekindle the Knights' momentum were doused by Parsippany Hills' ability to continue passing the ball and moving the chains, despite the worsening conditions. Breslauer completed a 17-yard TD pass to Jordan Thompson with 2:53 left in the third for a 31-14 lead.
Ciaglia threw a 9-yard TD pass to Chris Bell to close out a 12-play, 77-yard drive and bring West Essex within 31-21 with 5:36 left in the game. Ciaglia passed for 96 yards in the game on 7-for-13 accuracy. Coyle rushed for 81 yards on 13 carries.
Parsippany Hills closed out the scoring with 1:49 left when Breslauer tossed his fifth TD pass of the night to Thompson from 14 yards away. Breslauer has 34 TD passes this season, including 10 in two games against West Essex. Parsippany Hills outgained West Essex, 302-213.
In the post-game huddle, Benacquista asked all his seniors to stand alongside him, and, with several of his 12th-grade players fighting back tears, told the team, "Nobody believed in these guys, and they led you to a sectional title game. ...I am proud to have been your coach."