Top seed in Class 4, Region D and home field in the region playoffs is at stake when Salem visits Dobson Stadium Friday evening. It’s been this way many times over years when Pulaski County and the Spartans have locked horns on the gridiron, but this is the biggest matchup since 2008, the Cougars last 10-0 season which did not end until the state semifinal game.
Both teams are 8-1 on the year. Both are obviously the best two teams in the River Ridge District. The winner will be the mythical district champion. It will be the 47th time the two programs have played. Salem leads the series 27-19, and has won the last 10 straight times over the last eight years, and 18 of the last 21. Before that run the Cougars led the series 16-9.
It will not be determined until all the final results are in Friday night who the next opponent will be for both squads. The winner will absolutely play Amherst at home to open the playoffs. Nothing else is absolutely certain at this point. The loser may still be the second seed in the region, but that may depend on bonus points received if teams they have beaten are able to win Friday. For instance, Pulaski Co. wants William Byrd, Abingdon, Cave Spring, and Bassett to win games.
But the focus is Salem and taking care of business, and if the Cougars do, none of the other stuff matters. Head coach Stephen James is hoping for just that, his team doing its job.
“It’s a huge game. I’m sure that’s all the kids have heard about all week. I understand that. This is the kind of game a players loves to play in and the kind of game a coach loves to coach. This is why you play, why you coach. But we also need to understand it’s a football game, and we need to play it just like we play all the other games. There is going to be a huge crowd and that’s great. It’s going to be exciting and lots of emotion. But when the game starts we must get down to business. Don’t let the emotion cause us to miss a tackle, commit a penalty, or miss a block. We still have to execute and do our jobs just like you do in any other game. We must keep our focus, read our keys, be where we’re supposed to be and do what we’re supposed to do,” said James.
James understands the challenge. It will be the toughest assignment his outstanding defense has faced this season, and just the same, the toughest challenge for his offense.
“Their offensive scheme forces us to play a bit different. Salem is Salem and they are going to do what they do. They will try to take away space and prevent us from making big plays on defense. But we played them pretty well last season and our defense is better. We may have to play things more straight up, but I know those kids will give it everything they’ve got. Offensively, we have gotten better, and we are going to need to grind it out again, get four yards while our defense is trying to stop Salem from getting four yards. Their linebackers (Bobby Pinella, 6-2, 225, and Zavionne Wood, 5-10, 185) are outstanding. We need to get them blocked. On offense and defense, we need to win the battle at the line of scrimmage. We must stop the run, and force Salem to try and win the game with the pass,” added James.
Tailback Isiah Persinger leads the way in the Spartan running attack with 1,171 yards and 14 touchdowns. Fullback Cam Leftwich has scored 12 touchdowns. Wood is also a more than capable running back so there is depth in the Salem backfield. Quarterback Hunter Chaney has not been dynamic, but is efficient. He can make the basic throws.
The Cougar offensive front has been coming on and in the past two games Pulaski Co. has rushed for 535 yards. Both Chris Shay and Keyontae Kennedy have each run for over 200 yards combined in wins over Blacksburg and Patrick Henry. Kennedy now has 548 yards on the season, and Shay 392.
James understands what a victory would mean and it’s not just about home field and having the highest rating in the region. “We’ve been getting better. The program is improving. The kids and our coaching staff have worked hard. I know what this series used to be like. We need a win over Salem. I guess most everybody feels that way. Salem is the most consistent winner in this section of the state. I want this program back at the same level. To get it done, you have to beat Salem. I want people to know that to get it done, you have to beat Pulaski County too. This would be a great win for our kids on this team, but a great win for our program, and what we want to be,” said James.
The starting lineup for the Cougars will have Cooper Dunnigan, 6-3, 280, and Clay Phillips, 6-2, 287 at the tackles, Tyler Brookman, 5-11, 250 and Markus Wright, 6-1, 285 at the guards, and Levi Young, 6-0, 280 at center. The quarterback will be 6-3, 185 A.J. McCloud, the running backs Kennedy, Shay, and Gage Mannon, 6-0, 195. The wideouts will be Logan Burchett, John Lyman, Layne Suthers, and Chase Dotson. The kicker and punter will be Broc Simpson, the long snapper Bryant Worrell and Burchett is the holder.
Defensively, 6-2, 290 Zeke Surber will be on the nose, Will Bishop, 5-8, 185, and Tristan Bowden, 5-10, 195 will be the outside tackles, the outside linebackers will be 6-3, 220 Chayton Rollins and 5-9, 185 Ethan Gallimore. The inside backers will be 5-9, 205 Austin Gallimore and 5-11, 185 Luke Russell. The corners will be 6-2, 185 Layne Suthers, and 5-11, 180 Corvin Carter, and the safeties Mannon and Shay.
Cougar Paws: The main gate to Dobson Stadium will open at 5:30……….In other games of importance Wm. Byrd will face Franklin Co., Abingdon plays at Lee, Bassett entertains Magna Vista, Cave Spring and Hidden Valley face off, Blacksburg is at Christiansburg, E.C. Glass travels to Brookville, Danville is at Martinsville, and Halifax home to Tunstall……If you cannot make it out to Dobson Stadium the game will be broadcast live on “107 Country PSK.” Air time is 6:15 with the Insurance Center of Dublin pregame show.
By DAN CALLAHAN, The Patriot