NORTH CALDWELL- It wasn’t how they might have written it up under normal circumstances when it comes to the storied West Essex football tradition; however, in battling back from nearly a month away from action due to a COVID-19 quarantine, the Knights rallied as well as any team could in putting together a perfect 6-0 record during an unusual and modified 2020 season.
West Essex concluded its campaign with a dramatic 19-13 victory over longtime rival Hanover Park (5-2) in the Cosmo Cardone Cup Game on Nov. 25, and sent a dedicated senior group out on a high note.
“I cannot say it enough how impressed I am with the way these young men dealt with all of the obstacles thrown at them going back to June when the modified schedule was announced,” said veteran head coach Chris Benacquista. “There was definite disappointment when we found out there would be no state tournament but we made a commitment back then to not feel sorry for ourselves and make every day count.
“We played Brearley on Oct. 2nd and did not play again until facing Montville until Oct. 30th. Missing four weeks of anything and staying sharp is tough let alone a sport like football where repetition is key.”
Among the seniors who stood out were running back-defensive back Chris Bell (75 carries for 475 yards, 7 touchdowns), who led a balanced rushing attack and also excelled defensively; RB-LB Giancarlo Farro (464 yards rushing, 10 TDs), who was another key to the ground game while also shining on defense; tight end-linebacker Vinnie Panzarino (53 tackles, 3 sacks), who was another stellar two-way performer; right tackle-defensive end Jake Cusano, who helped spearhead a new-look and very effective O-Line and also led the team with 8 sacks; right guard Jason Kitchin, who provided solid blocking on that O-Line, and placekicker Tim Steer, who provided a reliable leg on extra points.
“I am as proud of this senior group as any I've coached over the years,” Benacquista stated. “They handled every obstacle and disappointment with class and perseverance and really were an inspiration to every player and coach in the program. Not to mention they are excellent football players who played hard for each other every snap of every game.
“The hardest part of this season was dealing with the uncertainty of things and trying to stay as positive as possible at all times. I'm blessed with a tremendous coaching staff and real tough kids who were able to pull together and get the most out of each other and this season.
“As strange and as challenging as 2020 was I also think when we have time to reflect, we'll appreciate just how memorable and rewarding this season was.”
West Essex has won nine sectional state titles including most recently in 2017 and have put together so many fine teams such as the 10-1 squad in 2013 which captured a North 1, Group 2 title in Benacquista’s first season at the helm.
There are memorable squads such as the 1980 team which won a North 2, Group 4 championship with two wins at Giants Stadium and finished as the No. 1 team in the state according to The Star-Ledger.