It’s Salem Week! Previewing Friday night’s big game

Cougar football helmetBy MASON CLARK

The Patriot

It’s Salem week!

Always the most highly anticipated game on the Pulaski County football schedule.

Suffice to say there is no love lost between the Cougars and the Spartans.

The history of the rivalry goes like this: the first ten years, Pulaski County dominated. For the next 25 or so years, it was pretty even. And then the last ten years, Salem has dominated us. There is no team we’ve played more than them, there is no team they have played more than us. There is no series as decorated in this area and maybe in this state as this one is. Thirteen times this game has been within a touchdown. For the better part of 3 decades, the winner of this game won the district. We’ve beat them when they’ve won state championships before, they beat us the year we won the state championship. Probably the two best high school football traditions and histories in this area. Nobody has beat us more than them, nobody has been them more times than us. It’s the best rivalry historically in this area.

Our history with Salem begins before Salem even opened as a high school. The very first game in Cougar football history was on September 7th, 1974, against the now defunct Andrew Lewis High School. It was set for September 6th in the new County Stadium (later changed to Dobson Stadium in 1989), but rain and flooding caused it to be moved to the old Dublin High School, which had become Dublin Middle School. Dave Brown’s bunch came out firing and stunned the heavily-favored Wolverines, jumping out to a 12-0 halftime lead with Tony Carden scoring the first two touchdowns in Cougar football history, with James McClanahan and Ricky Casey helping out a lot too. But the Wolverines made some adjustments at halftime under legend head coach Eddie Joyce, and stormed back to win the game 29-12. There hasn’t been a Cougar game at Soldiers Field since, and there was still hasn’t been a Cougar game with the score of 29-12.

The next year, their quarterback threw for 296 yards and 3 touchdowns on 18/21 passing to beat us soundly, 28-0. We never played Andrew Lewis again. After taking them off the schedule, Lewis played one more season, and Andrew Lewis High was consolidated with nearby Glenvar High, and became Salem High, choosing the name Spartans. Four years after that, in 1981, Glenvar High was reopened, and now Salem and Glenvar still exist.

The first meeting was in 1977. Led by star quarterback Timmy Venable, we were soundly defeated in the first ever meeting, 34-6. The next year in 1978, Dave Brown’s final win of his decorated coaching career came against the Spartans, 15-6. Joel Hicks came to town shortly thereafter.

Frankly, Salem wasn’t good at all around this time. In 1979, future NFL star Gary Clark scored multiple times and led us to a dominant 46-7 win. The next season, King Harvey led the way in a 27-0 win for us over Salem. In 1981, en route to our first district title, we narrowly beat a surprising bad Salem team (1-9), 10-7. It’s just so hard to imagine a Salem team 1-9. Anyways, the next year we gave Salem their worst loss they’ve experienced over the last 40 years, a 40-0 blowout as the 1982 defense terrorized them.

Willis White came to Salem from PH in 1983 and Salem quickly turned things around. But we were the top dogs around here by then, and it took a while for White to get them up to our level. We won 13-6 in 1983, then again 27-14 in 1984. That was Salem’s only loss that year and they missed the playoffs because of it. We won in a monsoon rain in 1985 by a score of 20-6, and with that we had won eight straight in the series and led it 8-1.

In 1986, both teams were unbeaten. We lost to them 14-13 at home, in what is undoubtedly one of the most controversial games in school history. I see why. It is not alone either, as there have been some rather “interesting” things to happen when playing Salem, if you know what I mean. They beat us again, 3-0 in the first overtime game in Cougar history. It remains our only overtime loss in school history.

We didn’t get to play them in 1988 or 1989. Those are the only two seasons since Salem opened in 1977 that we didn’t play the Spartans. Then it packed back up again in 1990, when the Cougars were in a down year. We fell 10-0 that year. We came up short in 1991 too by a score of 27-16. Salem went on to lose the state championship game that year. Then in 1992, they beat us in a shady game at Salem Stadium 29-22. That was the final loss of that season as we won the ultimate prize later that year.

We got them back good in 1993, dominating them in every way possible and winning 45-6. It could’ve been much worse too. We won a closer game led by Tim Davis’ two scores in a 21-18 win at Salem Stadium. We won another close one in 1995, by a score of 16-13.

1996 was a weird game. We had just played on a Monday against Amherst, and we tried to get Salem to move the game to Saturday. They refused. So we played them on that Friday night, and we came up short, 27-14. Salem went on to win their first state championship that season. We got them back in 1997 behind Craig Hodge’s lead, winning 20-16. But 1998 was a tough one. With a very young team, and against a superb Salem team that went 14-0 that year and won it all again, we were beat 47-0. That was the biggest loss coach Hicks ever suffered as the coach of the Cougars. 1999 was a little better, but we still lost 41-21. Salem won it all again in 1999.

But 2000 was the year we took it back. Playing against a two-time defending state champion, Frank Cobbs put together quite possibly the greatest performance in school history, running for 295 yards and 5 touchdowns against Salem, breaking a 29-game winning streak for them, the longest in the state at the time. Salem went on to win a third straight Division 4 state crown, while we came up just short against a nationally-ranked Heritage-Newport News team in Division 5.

2001 was a unique year in the rivalry. First, we beat the Spartans handily in the regular season, 28-7. Josh Calfee put on a show with 229 yards rushing and 2 touchdowns. Then we got them again in the postseason for the region championship, and we dominated them 40-13, as Jeremy Porter and Calfee took turns running all over them. 2002 saw us win 26-14. That was the last time coach Hicks coached against Salem. When he left, the Pulaski County Cougars led the series 16-9, he personally had a 15-8 record against Salem, and against legendary coach Willis White, he left with a 18-10 record, combining his days at Patrick Henry and Salem.

Enough cannot be said about coach White. He was a brilliant football coach, but is also a very nice and classy man. He won four state championships at Salem and if it weren’t for us, he easily could’ve won more. He also led Patrick Henry to a state championship game in 1979.

Then, the rivalry game moved into a new phase. Coach Turner took over in 2003 and that was also the first year we played Salem in the season finale. We lost to them 23-7 that season. I’m 2004, Salem and us were both 8-1, winner take the district crown. We were led by nationally-touted sophomore superstar Kevin Crouse. We were soundly defeated 30-3. The next year, we came up just short of a huge upset, falling 21-17 behind Crouse’s 159 yards and 2 touchdowns. Then we played them again in the postseason and lost 34-7, behind Crouse’s 154 yards and touchdown. We didn’t know it, but that was the last of Crouse that we would see. More on him in another article.

2006 was the darkest year in Cougar history. We fell to Salem 36-20 to end a nightmare season. Then in 2007, we bounced back strongly, but came up painfully short against a stout Spartans squad. We lost 21-14 in the regular season finale, and 17-7 the next week in postseason play. Then 2008 was the season for us. Finally, we got them back. Led by Virginia Tech commit and world class speedy Nubian Peak, we beat them to cap a perfect season at 10-0, winning 34-24. After a 2-8 season, our star player passing away and a patriarch of the school and program passing away in 2006, just two years later we were undefeated and district champions. Then we got them again in the playoffs on a frigid 18-degree night. Salem was no match. We beat them 38-0. They haven’t been beat so bad since. It was their largest defeat since we beat them 45-6 in 1993. It was a great season.

2009 we lost to them 35-20, and that turned out be Coach Turner’s final game. In 2010 we pulled an upset, winning 21-13.

We have not beat them since.

That started with 35-20 and 27-6 losses in 2011, when we made the playoffs at 1-9. Then in 2012 we lost to them 28-14 in the regular season and then 17-14 in the playoffs in what was another “strange” game. In 2013 they killed us 42-6, and Todd Jones departed.

We put up a good fight in 2014 for a while but Salem was too much, Alex Ramsey leading the way to a 49-24 win for them. We met up at 9-0 each in 2015, but we weren’t ready for a matchup like that in Salem Stadium and lost 42-13. In 2016 we took a 56-14 shellacking at home, 2017 we lost 43-20 after putting up a good fight for the first half. In 2018 we fell 21-10 (another odd game), and 2019 we came up painfully short 12-6, despite a valiant effort from one of if not the best defense in school history.

The past two meetings haven’t been much more kind. We fell 27-14 to a state championship team in the spring of 2021 and lost 55-6, the biggest home loss in school history and biggest loss in the history of the series last fall. That made it thirteen straight Spartan wins.

With that, Salem leads the all-time series 30-19. That includes 16 of the last 19. Let’s face it. Salem has been far better than us for a long time now. We need to face that. We haven’t beat them since 2010. The seniors this year were in kindergarten the last time we beat them. We haven’t beat them in Salem since 2001. I at 22 years old was 18 months old when that happened last. It simply hasn’t been a rivalry lately. Salem folks actually sometimes say other teams, like Patrick Henry or Northside, are bigger rivals them today than we are. Hopefully that can change this year. We will see on Friday night.

Salem Preview
Salem enters the game 5-1. Their season began in northern West Virginia, where they took on a national powerhouse in Martinsburg. The Spartans proved to be no match for the nationally-ranked Bulldogs, as Martinsburg won 40-7. Salem kept Martinsburg to just 13 points in the first half, but they proved too much through the course of the game. The Spartans were just dominated by a better team. Don’t let this get too far though. Martinsburg is indeed that good. They would do this against just about anybody else in our area. The game is definitely an outlier.

They run their famous I-formation, a staple of Spartan football for about forty years now. They run it a lot and run it well, and then they throw deep off of play-action passing. Their line play is always the best, they play stingy and disciplined defense, get very few penalties, don’t turn the ball over much, and play good, smart football. They’re strong, physical, and execute at a remarkably high level.

The next week, Salem took on Franklin County, who the Cougars scrimmaged in the preseason. As those of the fans who made that trip know, Franklin County has a good football team this year. Salem won a wild one, 33-32. Franklin went for 2 to try to win it in regulation and were stopped just short. The Eagles led 13-7 at the half. Salem was outgained 411-344. The best player on that night was junior Javeon Jones, who accounted for all five Salem touchdowns, two of them rushing and three receiving.

Week three saw Salem take on William Fleming. The Spartans proved too much for the Colonels, winning 49-12. Peyton Lewis, a state champion track runner, led the way that night with 179 yards on just 12 attempts and a touchdown. Jones continued to stand out with 88 rushing yards and 4 more touchdowns, and star QB DaRon Wilson went 5/8 passing for 158 yards and 2 touchdown passes.

The next week they killed a helpless Northside team that still has yet to win a game, 55-14. Lewis was again outstanding, running for 164 yards and 3 touchdowns on 16 carries and made 11 tackles on defense. Jones rushed for 68 yards and a touchdown on 13 tries, Wilson was 7/9 passing for 74 yards, and Josiah Persinger, younger brother of former Spartan star Isaiah Persinger, had a touchdown too. It should be noted that the Vikings were within a touchdown into the second half and actually led at one point, but to no avail.

In week five, they set a school record with the biggest win in school history, beating Blacksburg, who I will decline to comment on, 76-0. It was 55-0 at the half. I think that speaks for itself. Peyton Lewis continued to astound, running for 86 yards and 2 touchdowns, returned a punt for a hat trick touchdown, he forced a fumble and made 11 more tackles. Jayveon Jones ran for 3 touchdowns from his fullback position and Wilson passed for 89 yards and ran for a touchdown.

And last week in the remnants of Hurricane Ian, they outlasted Christiansburg by a score of 6-0. Peyton Lewis scored the evening’s lone touchdown in the third quarter. There was no scoring in the first half. Frankly, the Demons had every chance to win the game, but didn’t take advantage. Lewis finished that night with 22 runs for 88 yards and a touchdown.

With that, Salem is 5-1. Lewis is their undisputed best player. Jones and Wilson are right there. They won’t get the fame for it, but the offensive line is very talented too. The Spartans are young, as they returned less than half of their starters from last years team. But don’t let that fool you.

Pulaski County Preview
The Cougars come in at 3-2. Let it be clear: how this season will be remembered and what kind of season we have will be determined from here on out. We’re going to be playing much better teams than we have so far. The going is getting rough for the Cougars. That’s not to say we will have a rough remainder of the season, that’s saying that the competition is only going to get harder from here.

Trevor Burton leads the offense. He has ran the football 88 times for 772 yards (8.8 yards per attempt) and 14 touchdowns, by far the most on the team. Chris Gallimore has ran the ball and thrown the ball well. Despite some less than stellar games running, Gallimore still has 303 rushing yards and 3 touchdowns. Passing wise, Gallimore is 12/25 for 194 yards. 8 yards per attempt is pretty good. We’ve been able to pass good when we need to, but that’s obviously not what we want to do most of the time.

Zach Parker, Taner Mace and Brett Jones have all combined to average a nice 5.7 yards per carry and 192 rush yards. Mace leads the team with 69 receiving yards on 3 catches, Jones has 2 catches for 41. Marcus Reed and Davis Neel have both done good blocking in the flexbone offense, but also receiving when called upon. Reed has 2 catches for 64 yards, Neel 2 for 12. Both have made the most of the limited opportunities they have had. In most offenses they’d have more, but that’s not their job mostly in the offense. They block at a high level and are very unselfish.

Speaking of unselfish, none of these guys would be doing much of anything if it weren’t for the offensive line up front. Evan Alger, Aiden Moore, Nolan Dalton, Diego Turner and Hunter Hill have paved the way for about 1,500 yards of offense so far. If we want to pull an upset Friday night, these guys will have to be wonderful.

Defensively has been a mixed bag. Against the run we’ve been good, against the pass has been mostly good, but shaky at times. We’re allowing 17.4 points per game so far. But Tennesee (154 yards on 9 attempts) Bluefield (277 yards on 31 attempts) and Cave Spring (140 yards on 14 attempts) have thrown the footbsll very well against the Cougars. Salem is known to have a limited but remarkably effective passing game, deep on play action. This is not a pattern that can continue on Friday night if we’re to win. But Friday night was mostly an improvement, albeit in rain. We’ll need a great performance against the run and pass for a win Friday night.

You will see Jack Allen, Alan Fernandez and Diego Turner up front. All have done a great job getting pressure on quarterbacks and causing disruption in the backfield. Usually your defensive linemen won’t pile up the stats because they’re often double teamed, but the three have been very good so far. At linebacker, Hunter Hill and Nicholas Woolwine will be the outside linebackers, as they are usually sure tacklers in the open field. Inside, Tyler Underwood and Evan Alger have been outstanding against the run. Alger has had a lot of TFLs and sacks throughout the year while Underwood is the Cougar’s leading tackler. In the secondary. Zach Parker will be the cornerback on one side while either Kyle O’Neil or Trey Landreth will be on the other side. Safeties will be Brett Jones and Trevor Burton, moving back from his normal linebacker spot.

Nathan Pratt will be the kicker and has been very good so far this year. Bryant Nottingham is just a freshman but has done well kicking off for the Cougars. Parker and Burton have been doing good returning kickoffs. Taner Mace and Zach Parker have both returned punts at times. Evan Alger has done well snapping, and Brett Jones has done good holding for Pratt.

Kickoff is set for 7:00 Friday night at Salem Stadium.