Essex Team of the Year: West Essex- When the Knights began the season 0-2 it wasn’t against any typical pair of opponents. In fact, the first two contests of the 2023 season - commencing in the heat of late August - were against two of the state’s best Group 2 teams in Haddonfield and Westwood.
And, while West Essex would drop both those contests to a pair of high-caliber teams that wound up a combined 23-2 on the season, with Westwood winning the overall Group 2 state championship, the Knights were accumulating valuable residual experience - beyond any points for its power index - in that the team was more than prepared to rally its collective forces and continued positive attitude and then proceed to roar through the majority of its remaining schedule.
“As always, we are trying to challenge our players, West Essex coach Chris Benacquista said as his team was just embarking on those two early-season tests.
“Haddonfield certainly let us know right away where we were to start the season, and Westwood, which was added as a SFC crossover game, is much like Haddonfield just a great program returning a ton of talent from the previous year’s team.”
While the Knights would lose two more games the rest of the season, 21-14 at neighboring power Caldwell, and 28-3 to a powerful, state-ranked Delsea in the overall Group 3 state final at Rutgers, the overall 2023 journey for the North Caldwell-based regional school was truly impressive, including an 8-game win streak heading into the Nov.26th state championship game at Rutgers
For its efforts, which included the program’s 10th state sectional championship, West Essex (10-4) is Sideline Chatter’s 2023 Essex County ‘Team of the Year.’
The Team of the Year is not necessarily the No. 1 ranked team in the county, but rather the best overall story from the season and the Knights were very much a frontline tale of success from the recently-completed fall gridiron campaign.
Perhaps fourth-seeded West Essex’s most noteworthy victory was a come-from-behind 27-17 semifinal playoff win at top-seeded Summit in its sectional playoff championship quest, and there was also a thrilling 21-20 win over a surging West Morris team in the Group 3 state semifinals which had followed a defensive-minded 14-6 victory vs. Passaic Valley for the N2G3 championship.
Two characteristics that personify West Essex football throughout the 13 years of Benacquista at the helm, and was also certainly evident as well during the 14-year tenure of his predecessor and mentor, Dave Drozjock, are toughness and perseverance; and the 2023 Knights exhibited plenty of both of those attributes while turning the page after their two early-season setbacks and simply continuing to work hard each and every day, while winning most of their remaining games en route to a N2G3 playoff title.
“Our team came together so well after a rough start this season,” said West Essex junior defensive back Max Garcia, who had two big defensive touchdowns in his team’s playoff upset at Summit. “And, I think those early losses (at Haddonfield and Westwood) toughened us up and made us come even closer together.”
Perhaps not as star-studded nor filled with as many Division I football recruits like a few of the larger football programs in Essex County, West Essex had its usual arsenal of superb players and all-around athletes continuing to go out and get the job done in 2023, including DBs such as Garcia (58 tackles, 4 Int.), Anthony Drago (91 tackles 6 Int.), Tyler Gann (68 tackles, 4 Int.) and Jorden Simeone (103 tackles), and linebackers Brady Phillips (75 tackles), Nick Sangillo (115 tackles) and Sam Long (65 tackles, 5 sacks), plus linemen including Chris Nigro (58 tackles, 9 sacks).