NORTH CALDWELL, NJ — Despite losing a number of key players from the roster, the expectations for the West Essex football team remain unchanged in 2019 as the squad looks to continue a winning tradition.
“Every year, we expect to be in the hunt for a conference championship and state championship,” said head coach Chris Benacquista. "It’s just the way things are around here, and this year is no different."
The Knights lost a good portion of their offensive and defensive output to graduation in spring 2019; but with new faces comes a sense of desire to prove their worth.
“We lost a lot of talent—there’s no doubt about that—but the guys that are trying to replace them are really motivated,” said Benacquista.
West Essex returns three key starters along a hulking offensive line. Seniors Bardhyl Gashi and Vito Benevenga will play at right tackle and guard respectively. Fellow senior Sam Carsillo will play left guard, flanked by juniors Christian Caronia and Chris Maestoso at left tackle and center, respectfully.
“Three of the five guys started last year and the ones that didn’t could have, but they were backing up some good seniors last year,” said Benacquista. "The offensive line is definitely a good thing and a strength of the team."
At the helm for the Knights will be senior quarterback Nick Ciaglia, who played backup in 2018 but saw some action when fitting. Due to his athleticism, Ciaglia will double as the team's starting safety on the defensive side as well.
“[Ciaglia] has really improved his throwing a lot, his carries are great and he’s worked hard at it,” said Benacquista. "He’s done a real nice job of becoming a real good quarterback."
In the backfield, West Essex will employ a running back by committee approach. Cristian Cataldo, Chris Bell, Joseph Visaggio and Nick Lagreca will all factor into the backfield for the Knights. In limited action, the quartet produced more than 200 yards rushing and more than six yards per carry last season.
“We’ve got a lot of talented guys who can carry the ball for us,” said Benacquista.
Rounding out the offense for West Essex will be a host of players who provide varying skills for Benacquista to utilize. Ryan Coyle will help anchor the run attack at fullback while Vincent Panzarino and Christian Styskal will supplement the attack from tight end.
Sophomore Chris Corbo and senior Josh Mirabella round out the group of pass catchers for the squad.
“These are guys that have been working real hard on trying to get the timing down and the continuity down and so far I’m impressed with their route running and their ability to catch in traffic," said Benacquista. "I think they will be able to make an impact."
Defensively, the Knights will employ their classic 3-4 base defense, where a number of players will be pulling double duty as two-way players. Ciaglia will head up the group at the safety postion alongside Joseph Visaggio, Chris Corbo and Josh Mirabella. Cristian Cataldo will also aid in back and help at the cornerback position.
In the front seven, Chris Bell and Vincent Panzarino will provide pressure from the outside linebacker position while Bardhyl Gashi and Chris Maestoso will plug the gaps as a nose tackle and defensive end, respectively.
“We’re very aggressive on defense and the kids have responded to it, which I like,” said Benacquista. "We have a lot of physical kids,” said Benacquista.."
Rounding out the defense are five specialists who will exclusively start on that side of the ball. Nick Mannino and Jake Cusano will chew up blocks as defensive ends for the squad. In the back seven, Aaron Rodriguez and Russel Lanzl will play the inside linebackers while Joe Lombardo will man the cornerback position.
“Our scheme is going to be an attacking defense,” said Benacquista. "Our line is always moving. We send a linebacker or two every play and have some pretty unique stunts."
Days before the opening of their 2019 campaign, to begin on Sept. 6 against PCTI, the Knights continue to grind their way through the preseason, which has yielded positive results thus far.
“The team is really cohesive," their coach said. "They want to make their own mark as far as how they play and I expect good things."