PISCATAWAY- West Essex coach Chris Benacquista liked where his Knights were positioned at halftime trailing just 6-3 to powerful Delsea, and hopes remained that perhaps with a couple of big plays the Knights could somehow mount an upset bid in Sunday night’s Group 3 final.
But, the big and strong Crusaders wasted no time assuming full control in the second half mounting three straight scoring drives en route to a 28-3 victory over the Knights on a rainy and windy finale to the day’s three public school championship games that included wins for Mountain Lakes in Group 1, Mainland in Group 4 and Delsea in the Group 3 nightcap.
“They just wore us down,” said Benacquista, whose Knights finished an otherwise superb 10-4 season. “We knew coming in that we’re a little undersized in certain areas and they are a big and physical team.
“We were hoping that with the weather and all that we could keep it close in the first half and then make a play or two in the second half, but as time went on our bodies couldn’t withstand the punishment anymore.
“Our kids fought until the very end and that’s typical of this 2023 team.”
Delsea (12-1), winners of their final 11 games and a 2-time Group 3 finalist having fallen to Old Tappan last year, dominated on the ground behind its 1-2 backfield punch of junior Dan Russo (22 carries for 129 yards and 2 touchdowns) and senior Wayne Adair (12 carries for 134 yards and a TD and 2-point conversion), plus the defense shut down the Knights’ usually potent ground attack to just 22 positive rushing yards.
Junior D-lineman Jonathan Harris led a quick attacking defensive effort by the Crusaders with seven tackles, including five tackles for a loss plus two sacks.
“Our defense had a very good game plan,” said Delsea veteran coach Sal Marchese. “We can definitely run the Wing-T and we know how to defend it as well.”
The Knights battled throughout trying to slow down Delsea’s relentless ground assault, including a superb effort from junior linebacker Brady Phillips who finished with 13 tackles.
However, with huge and powerful linemen such as New Hampshire commit Tyler Habersham-Agbemenu, who is 6-foot-4, 335 pounds and Greg Masso (6-4, 380), the Crusaders simply have too much size to deal with for most teams and the hard-driving 220-pound Russo is a very difficult back to take down.
“They don’t foot anybody,” said Benacquista. “They run that offense with precision and we knew that we’d have trouble moving the ball against them.
“They are mammoth and they also move very well for a tam with that size.”
Still, West Essex hung tough for the first half, even after Delsea began the game with a quick and efficient, 7-play, 70-yard drive featuring a 22-yard burst by Adair and capped by a 1-yard Russo run with 8:12 still showing in the first quarter for a 6-0 lead.
The Crusaders then put together another strong drive moving from their own 46 to the Knights 18 before failing to convert on a fourth down in the red zone.
West Essex then put together its best drive of the game, eating up nearly eight minutes with an 18-play drive that began at its own 14 and ended at the Delsea 10 from where senior placekicker John Moss booted a 27-yard field goal to cut the Delsea lead in half, 6-3, with 5:20 remaining in the half.
The Crusaders would score on their first three drives of the second half and all three started with great field position, beginning from their 48 twice and then their 42.
The first scoring drive of the third quarter came on just three plays covering 52 yards and capped by a 32-yard TD run by Adair.
A 2-point conversion pass from senior QB Zach Maxwell to Harris gave the Crusaders a 14-3 lead with 8:29 left in the third.
After another West Essex 3-and-out Delsea went 52 yards on eight plays highlighted by runs of 14 yards by Russo and 17 by senior QB Zach Maxwell and finishing with 1-yard QB sneak by Maxwell (7 carries for 63 yards) to increase the lead to 20-3 with 3:23 still remaining in the third.
Delsea finished the night’s scoring with an 11-play, 58-yard drive that carried over into the fourth quarter and Russo’s second TD of the night on a 2-yard run with an Adair 2-point conversion run to follow made it 28-3 w2ith 7:29 remaining.
In the end Delsea was just too difficult to hold down over four quarters, yet that fact shouldn’t take anything away from what had been just a superb second half of the season by West Essex, which entered the Group 3 final with eight straight wins and a North 2, Group 3 state sectional title, and all happening after an 0-2 start out of the gates in late August and early September.
“I’m super proud of our kids and what they accomplished this year and for a team that was probably not expected by a lot of people to do what it did,” said Benacquista. “We made some mistakes tonight and they (Delsea) earned it.
“Coach Marchese (249-83-1 in 31 seasons) is a legend for a reason and this loss is a tough pill to swallow right now, but we’ll get back to work and hopefully be back here next year.
“Our seniors helped make an imprint for the future. We’ll lick our wounds a little and then celebrate this season in due time before getting back to work and starting the grind for next year.”
NOTES- West Essex’s standout junior wide receiver-safety Anthony Drago, who had two interceptions in the Group 3 semifinal win vs. West Morris, but sat out the entire second half after taking a hard hit to the head, was fine to play the entire Group 3 final on Sunday night and had a pair of receptions for 29 yards and played a spirited brand of defense…The Knights will graduate two terrific senior linemen in Chris Nigro and Eldin Gashi but will return three members of their O-Line in 2024 in junior center Joe Russo, guard Mikey Cerisano and tackle Michael Conforti…Defensively, West Essex has three key underclassmen at linebacker in Phillips, fellow junior Nick Sangillo and sophomore Jake Long….Benacquista is now 108-34 in 13 seasons at the helm with three sectional titles of the 10 West Essex has won since 1974…Delsea is now 40-4 in the past four seasons…Russo, who is a transfer from Vineland, had an amazing playoff run for the Crusaders with 657 yards rushing in his team’s five post-season victories.
Group 3 State Final:
DELSEA (12-1) 6 0 14 8 -28
WEST ESSEX (10-4) 0 3 0 0 - 3
D- Dan Russo 1 run (run failed)
W- John Moss 27 FG
D- Wayne Adair 32 run (Jonathan Harris pass from Zach Maxwell)
D- Maxwell 1 run (kick failed)
D- Russo 2 run (Adair run)
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