EAST RUTHERFORD—All season long, the West Essex defense and running game has been the foundation of the football team's success. Why would it be any different in the state championship game?
The Knight defense flexed its muscle, pitching a second half shutout and propelling West Essex to its eighth state sectional championship, claiming North I Group 2 with a 32-14 victory over River Dell Saturday at MetLife Stadium.
West Essex forced five turnovers and four sacks and put on a defensive clinic in the final two quarters, allowing just 31 yards and one first down on 16 plays. Meanwhile, the offense for West Essex got a pair of scores from both Stephen O'Neill and Ralph Velardi, and the Knights controlled the ball for 15:32 out of a possible 24 minutes in the final two quarters.
"I've been playing football for 11 years and I've been playing varsity since I was a sophomore. We've worked hard for this and we're just so happy," O'Neill said after the game. "Our team deserved this, we earned it, we worked so hard to get it."
The game was a close, back and forth affair early on. West Essex took a 6-0 lead behind a first quarter 24-yard screen-pass from Paul Haramis to Velardi. River Dell took a 7-6 lead after Ryan Duran caught a five-yard TD pass from Tim Barnes with 1:16 left in the first quarter. O'Neill scored from 17 yards out, but failed to get in on the two-point conversion, giving the Knights a 12-7 lead with 9:23 left in the opening half.
Lenny Smith of River Dell recovered a fumble at the West Essex 43, sparking a seven play drive, which concluded with a 38-yard touchdown strike from Barnes to Kevin Barry. River Dell gained just one first down the rest of the way, as West Essex began asserting itself.
"They have that no huddle thing where they read our defense and then they call the play," O'Neill said of River Dell. "Coach [Tim] Glenn did a great job switching us to that, so it helped us a lot."
Perhaps the big turning point of the game came late in the second quarter, when Knights defensive back Anthony Pompei intercepted a Sean Boland pass and returned it 23 yards to the River Dell 11-yard-line with 49 seconds left in the half. On the ensuing West Essex play, Tom Filipow caught a beautiful high-arching throw from Haramis in the back corner of the end zone. A two-point conversion catch and run by Pompei put the Knights up 20-14.
With 10:54 left in the game, Velardi put the Knights up by 12, taking an end-around reverse play 39 yards for the score. O'Neill delivered the knockout blow on an 13-yard sweep play, capping a 10-play, 67-yard drive with 2:20 left to play.
"We always pride ourselves on being powerful and blowing the other team off of the ball," O'Neill said. "Our line did a great job making holes for us."
Of the five turnovers caused for West Essex, Pompei had two interceptions, while D.J. Hamker recovered a fumble which was forced by Garrett Rees. Smith's fumble recovery was the lone turnover forced by the Hawks.
"They kind of shut us down running the ball, but defense came in and had to work hard," Hamker said. "We stepped it up in the second half, we're always a second-half team."
Haramis was very efficient with the ball on Saturday for West Essex, completing seven-of-nine for 102 yards and two touchdown passes and no interceptions. Meanwhile, West Essex's rushing attack compiled 200 yards and three touchdowns on the day. Hamker and O'Neill combined for 127 yards. Velardi gained 101 total yards on offense.
River Dell was led by Barnes, who threw for 101 yards and two touchdowns, while rushing for 28 yards. Barry earned two sacks for River Dell. The Hawks ended their season with a 10-2 record. West Essex ended with an 11-1 mark.