Since the Salem High School football team last won a sectional title, in South Jersey Group 2 in 1983, Paulsboro has claimed 14 Group 1 trophies.
The last of those 14 championships for the Red Raiders came at the expense of the Rams two years ago, and the boys in blue (and white) are looking for revenge.
Fourth-seeded Salem brings more experience this time around as it looks to end its now 33-year drought Saturday afternoon at Rowan University against second-seeded Paulsboro, and with only one championship more than 40 years of playoff action the hunger to close the deal is strong.
“We talked a lot about history,” Rams second-year coach Montrey Wright said of this week’s preparation. “We had some of the old guys come back to talk to the kids. We’ve had a lot of talented guys play on that field and not win a championship.
“It’s a blessing to be in this position and we want to go out and secure it. We have a history of great running backs, skill position players but they want the hardware. These guys are hungry for it, they know they can make history.”
History was already made Thanksgiving Day by Rams senior running back Jonathan Taylor in a rivalry win over Woodstown, as he broke the South Jersey single-season rushing record set by Glassboro’s Corey Clement and enters the final with 2,626 rushing yards this year.
He’s joined in the backfield by junior Zaire Jones, a Woodstown transfer who’s on the verge of his own 1,000-yard rushing season on top of Taylor’s huge year. The running back duo is the heart of an offense that’s scored at least 36 points in seven straight games.
“We’ve just got to make sure we play good team defense,” said Red Raiders coach Glenn Howard. “We’ve got to communicate, we’ve got to know our assignments and alignments and we’ve got to tackle real well.”
Paulsboro was on its own run of nine straight wins before a 55-27 loss last Friday at West Deptford, scoring over 43 points a game during the streak.
While no one for the Red Raiders has produced the kind of season Taylor has, they have shown more balance with the combo of junior running back Dehron Holloway (1,176 rushing yards) and senior quarterback Ken Jones (1,467 passing yards). This is leading many to feel that the Group 1 final could be one of the most exciting -- and high-scoring -- title games of the weekend.
“I’m not sure how the game’s gonna play out, each game is different,” Howard said. “We want to be able to run the ball and pass the ball. We’ll see from there how the game unfolds…. We’ll see how they align, some of the defensive sets they give us, and we’ll go from there.”
“That’s the great thing about this game, one mistake can lead to a touchdown,” said Wright. “It’s all how to counter the mistakes. We have a pretty good offense, and those guys have a pretty good offense. We want to make sure we limit those guys (as much as we can). It’s all going to boil down to who makes less mistakes.
“Every week we’ve been getting better. The guys know what we need to do to execute. I feel these guys haven’t hit their peak yet, that’s the crazy part. We’ve been playing phenomenal ball, but we’re still waiting for that complete game. That’s the wonderful thing about it.”
That’s despite Salem entering the game on an eight-game winning streak after a 1-2 start, reminiscent of 2014’s 2-3 beginning before reaching the championship.
While history may be on Paulsboro’s side -- it has more finals appearances (25) than the Rams have playoff appearances (20) -- that 2014 crown was the team’s first in eight years, and there isn’t a lot of experience back from that squad to try and win it all this time around.
“We don’t have a lot of guys who were starters in that game in 2014 who are starters now,” said Howard. “Some of them may have been on the team…. This is a new set of Raiders, and they’re trying to make their own mark. They’ve been working hard, and we’ll see what happens.
“It’s a long year, we’ve got some guys banged up a little bit -- it’s playoff football. The weather’s cooler … it feels good though. It’s good to be here, definitely.”
The Salem players are just as happy to be in this position, but are far from being just happy to be there.
“Our mindset coming into this year was a little bit of unfinished business,” Wright said. “The slow start kind of helped us refocus on what we needed to do. Once we got that second loss, the guys knew we couldn’t lose again. We wanted to reach that goal we haven’t reached in 30-something years.
“It’s a championship game, it’s going to be a big test for anybody. It’s a big challenge for us, and it should be on the big stage. … It’s going to be a great thing to see. It all comes down to who makes less mistakes and who wants it more. Every minute’s going to be crucial, so we have to take advantage of every minute.”
Scott Chappelear writes for South Jersey Sports Digest. He can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter at @srchappie.
Road to the SJ Group 1 Championship
No. 4 Salem (9-2)
Quarterfinal: def. No. 5 Haddon Hts., 50-8
Semifinal: def. No. 1 Woodbury, 42-0
No. 2 Paulsboro (9-2)
Quarterfinal: def. No. 7 Schalick, 49-6
Semifinal: def. No. 3 Pennsville, 49-28