Camp Confidential: West Essex
MSG Varsity will visit the top teams in the Garden State during preseason camps and provide all the latest news leading up to opening kick-off. In today’s edition of Camp Confidential, we take a look at West Essex.
LAST SEASON: Finished 11-1, won the Super Essex Conference-Liberty Division and the North Jersey, Section 1, Group 2 championship with a 32-14 win over River Dell. It was the Knights' third title in six years and eighth overall.
HEAD COACH: Chris Benacquista (2d season)
TOP RETURNING PLAYERS: OL/DL Mike Realbuto, OL/DL Nick Gareffa, WR/DB Nour Aly, DB Joe Scaglia, HB/LB Anthony Kross, OL/DE Christian Russo, FB/LB Jason Russo, OL/LB Roberto LoCascio, TE/DE Carmen Carnevale, HB/DB Billy Galese, HB/DB Peter Norton, HB Anthony Farro, QB Matt Thies.
BOTTOM LINE: West Essex lost a wealth of talent through graduation--one of its most talented senior classes of the past 20 years, in fact--but there is no reason at all to believe that success will be unable to find its way to West Greenbrook Road again this autumn.
The Knights' 11-1 finish marked their 11th consecutive winning seasons, during which it has averaged 9.3 victories. It would seem by such a staggering number that winning is contagious in North Caldwell, but what is really infectious is the tremendous work ethic and sense of discipline and devotion that courses through this program during the off-season year after year.
"We've been lucky," said Benacquista, a proud product of the West Essex program himself. "Our younger guys have bought into the same mentality that our seniors had last year and guys before that. We had a great group of 29 seniors last year; it was a tight-knit group, they really pulled for each other.
"The guys this year are following that same kind of thing. But a lot of them are still learning how to play at the varsity level and be consistent doing it."
Consistency was realized in most areas throughout the 2011 season, and most evident in the running game and on defense. Since-graduated Stephen O'Neill (Princeton), D.J. Hamker (Montclair State), Anthony Pompei and Garrett Rees (Montclair State) combined for a whopping 3,763 yards (O'Neill and Hamker were both over 1,000), while the defense posted three shutouts and allowed 11.08 points a game. Other than a humbling 45-0 loss to Delbarton just before the playoffs, the Knights' defense was outstanding.
The only fulltime starters back on offense are senior tackle Mike Realbuto and senior guard Nick Gareffa, who both earned all-conference honors by the coaches. Realbuto (6-2, 255) also started at DT, and senior Nour Aly was a starter in the secondary.
The widespread inexperience here (at least as far as starters go) will not mean a change of schematics for the Knights, who'll trot out their trusted Wing-T offense just like always and, for the most part, dig in defensively out of a 4-3 alignment--3-5 on occasion.
"Nothing is changing. The defense will a little depending on the team we play," Benacquista said. "The kids know what to expect, and that helps us keep consistency.
They like the smash-mouth attitude we've had for the last 20 years here, and we've had success with that. We're not often the biggest team on the field, but our guys kind of see that as a badge of honor, to be smaller but still able to push some people around a little bit."
THIES' COMPLETION RATE BOUND TO DROP
Junior Matt Thies takes over at quarterback after enjoying a productive summer, but there is just no way he can maintain the percentage he flaunted as a sophomore.
That's because he attempted just one pass, good for nine yards in a 34-12 victory over Morris Hills. Thies will likely see that rate drop precipitously in no time, but Benacquista is confident his QB will be making solid improvements all the while.
"He really got his body into good shape, lost a little weight, got stronger," Benacquista said. "He throws a nice ball, though he's still working on his reads, still learning when and where not to throw.
"A great thing about Matt is that he's truly one of the hardest workers on the field all the time. It's nice to have your QB setting an example for others as far as hard work."
No one could reasonably expect the new corps of runners to accomplish what O'Neill, Hamker and the other seniors did last season. A group that good is a rarity.
Still, several of the current runners do have limited varsity experience, and most made good use of their opportunities. Senior halfback Anthony Kross rushed for 250 yards, junior Joe Scaglia averaged 7.2 yards a carry on 19 attempts, and junior fullback Jason Russo was just under 100 yards on only 13 carries. Junior Billy Galese saw limited time both at halfback and in the secondary.
"I see a lot of balance," Benacquista said. "We have four halfbacks and they're all kinds of interchangeable. They all run with the same kind of speed. We'll end up using a lot of them to give them spells on defense. And Jason Russo and Eric Constantino are typical West Essex fullbacks: powerful, tough, they block, but they're both kind of shifty, too."
NAME RINGS A BELL
Roberto LoCascio is only a sophomore, but there probably isn't a person within three miles of North Caldwell who doesn't believe he's more than ready for the responsibility.
Not sure what LoCascio means in Italian, but in northwest Essex County it means hard-hitting linebacker. His older brothers, Salvatore and John, both were talented two-way players, but particularly distinguished on defense. Salvatore, a 2002 grad, went on to LaSalle to play football. John (2010) plays lacrosse at Villanova and is regarded as one of the top defensemen in the Big East.
Roberto (5-10, 190), also a starter at guard, does not come into this new role without merit. He was in on 28 tackles as a freshman and played defensively in every game.
The Knights ended their season with a convincing win over River Dell for the North Jersey, Section 1, Group 2 crown, and will waste no time stirring up old memories this fall. These two open the season Sept. 7 in River Dell.
"They're very similar to us, and obviously with the state final game last year, they'll want to get after us. It's going to be a brawl," Benacquista said. "We have a lot of new starters, but we did have a lot of young guys playing special teams last year in that game. They know what to expect as far as the emotion of the game goes. And they know how well-prepared and well-coached River Dell is. It's going to be a fun night."
Sept. 7at River Dell
Sept. 14 vs. West Orange
Sept. 22 at Caldwell
Sept. 28 vs. Orange
Oct. 5 at Belleville
Oct. 12 vs. Millburn
Oct. 19 vs. West Side
Oct. 27 at Irvington
Nov. 3 at Barringer
Mike Kinney covers football for MSG Varsity. Follow him on Twitter: @MikeKinneyHS