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Salem Seminoles hoping growth yields more wins

POSTED: June 25, 2014 12:25 p.m.
Darrell Everidge/Covington News

Salem quarterback Licash Lackey evades Apalachee defenders Dalton Bales and Chance Rodriguez during the two teams' 2013 meeting.

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Salem’s Seminoles have struggled for prominence throughout their 22 year history no matter what division they might occupy at any given time. With a 93-128 record heading into 2014, and with just 14 wins over the last four seasons, the ‘Noles seem to be entering this upcoming year in rather familiar territory.

“We’ve got to be able to run the football,” Salem head football coach John Starr said of his team. “A lot of teams are spreading out the field, but at the end of the day, you have to be able to run the football.”

Running the ball was one thing that Salem actually did well with the previous quarterback. For the 2013 season, Salem relied heavily on the mobility of senior starting quarterback Licash Lackey for their three victories. Lackey taxed opponents off the line last season, although his team gathered a modest win total. 

“Licash was a good athlete for us, and he played multiple positions during his career here. It won’t be an easy job, but we’ll just try to get the best possible athlete in that quarterback position,” Starr explained. “We’ll get a guy who can run and can pass and can do a lot of different things. We’ll get whoever’s the best available.”

While Lackey was a prominent run-first quarterback who anchored a mobile offense, Starr hopes to avoid shoe-horning the offense into last year’s quarterback’s talents. 

“We’ll just do what we can do best. I’m not going into the season with a run first, throw, pass, whatever. We’re just going to see what we do best,” Starr noted. 

“I think we have to have it closer to the season once we get the pads and see what we really can do best. Obviously we’d like to mix it up, but it really depends on that person and what best fits our personnel,” Starr added.

Despite Salem’s disappointing record, the offense has actually been occasionally competent at worst and overtly successful at best. Starr’s bunch has put up quality numbers on offense, averaging 19.5 points in 2013, up from 14.8 in 2012. The 2011 ‘Noles amassed 24.5 points per game, but managed just five wins. 

The real struggle for Salem’s Seminoles has been preventing the other team from putting up points. That 2011 program gave up 26.4 points per game, including five games where they allowed opponents 34 or more points. 

Salem gave up just as many points in 2013 and 30.0 points per game in 2012. In that regard, coupled with a 2-8 record, 2012 was Salem’s worst season statistically speaking in recent memory. As 2013 showed modest improvement over some key areas and provided an additional win on top of the year before, it still found the ‘Noles on the wrong end of the region, largely due to the defense’s inability to keep points off the board.

“There’s a lot of reasons why we’ve given up a lot of points,” Starr admitted.

One reason Starr cited specifically was the defense’s relative youth since that low point in 2012. 

“We started five or six kids as freshmen. They stayed in the system, and they started again in the system last year as sophomores. We’ve been very young on defense the last couple years. We feel like we’ve grown up a little bit on defense,” Starr acknowledged.

In addition to age and experience, Starr also referenced his team’s growth in size. 

“We’ll be a little bit bigger on defense and we’ll be able to match up with people on the inside. We haven’t been able to do that the last couple years, so hopefully we’ll be a little bigger and faster on defense this coming year.

“We feel like we’ve been getting pushed around the last few years size-wise, and I feel like we finally grew up physically and maybe we can slow people down.”

Now that Starr sees some of the defense’s key weaknesses addressed, he believes that they will show that improvement on the field come fall while admitting that future success is no excuse for previous inadequacies.

“That’s not an excuse. We’ve just got to get better, because we’re in a league that has some pretty powerful offenses and we’ve just got to be able to catch up a little bit better on what we’ve done thus far,” Starr said.

As difficult as Region 8-AAAAA has been over the last two-year cycle, the nature of the beast in no way seems to be calming down with the latest edition with one new playoff team and reinvigorated opponents under new management, or in one case, returning management.

With Scott Wilkins returning to Cedar Shoals after a six-year absence, John Starr gets to reenter a former adversarial relationship with his one-time nemesis.

The pair first met competitively in the 1995 Class-AAA state championship game while Starr was the coach of Josey High School’s Eagles and Wilkins was in just his second season during his first stint at Cedar Shoals.

“I am excited about that one,” Starr admitted, while maintaining some hesitancy. “They’re two totally different teams.

“Scott and I have been buddies a long time, and that was a special year. I don’t expect anything close to that, but I am looking forward to him getting back in there. He’s a great guy, he’s a super guy, and I am excited about that game.”

Wilkins’ return to Cedar Shoals is just one of the many changes to alter the landscape of Region 8-AAAAA football, along with Lanier joining the flock and new coaches coming to Loganville, Winder-Barrow and Heritage. 

Along with five new coaches, despite most of them having some prior connection to the region, one of the most dominant players to ever come through Georgia high school football is no longer a threat.

Even in the moderately modified landscape of Region 8-AAAAA in 2014, Starr believes that things will continue to play out much the same as they have before.

“Regardless of whether Deshaun [Watson] is there or not, Gainesville is a good football team,” Starr said. “We’re expecting them to be very good. 

“Obviously, I think everybody knows about Lanier being very good. I expect Cedar Shoals to be good. Honestly, kind of like always, there’s going to be a couple of really good teams at the top and then there will be a lot of good teams fighting for those other spots,” Starr noted.

As difficult as Region 8-AAAAA can be on teams, that leaves little time for teams to focus on rivalries and once-a-year games like the Conyers conquest between Heritage and Salem.

“We do look forward to playing Heritage every year, but having to play as many region games as we do, they all become significant…and all become big games. I look at Heritage and know it’s going to be exciting because a lot of the kids knew each other and play park ball with each other and want to do their best against each other, but we’ve had exciting games with everybody,” Starr explains. “The Winder-Barrow game last year was an unbelievable game. We’ve had a couple nail-biters with them the last couple years. 

“All of our games throughout the schedule are just fun games.”

That schedule will feature five playoff teams from 2013 and it will find Salem in a potentially vulnerable situation coming off of a meager 3-7 season. In order to succeed, Coach Starr has his list of priorities worked out to a precious few. 

“We need to stay healthy,” Starr led with. “Injuries have really been one of our biggest concerns. We need to be able to stay healthy, and that’s something that we haven’t done in the last couple of years.”

As one of the smallest schools in Class-AAAAA, Salem can hardly afford to lose anyone to an injury as they already face a paucity of depth. Once they get everyone healthy and keep them healthy, Starr hopes that the key to success boils down to two simple elements.

“We hope to be able to run the football, but we also hope to stop other people running the football,” Starr also noted. “The key for us is being able to run it and stop the run, and if we can do those things, I think we’ll be okay.”

Salem will start their season with a non-region contest against Rockdale County on Aug. 29 before opening region play by hosting cross-town rival Heritage on Sep. 5. Both Barrow County teams will visit Conyers to see Salem this season, with Apalachee making the trek on Sep. 12 for the third game of the season and Winder-Barrow making their visit to Rockdale County on Sep. 26. 

Both Winder-Barrow and Apalachee suffered losses against Salem last season, with the Doggs taking a 60-37, mistake-riddled beating, and Apalachee struggling through a 27-7 defeat.

Although the two region wins for Salem last season were nice, Starr hopes and believes that the 2014 edition of the Seminoles will fare better all throughout the region.

“We’ve got a good group of kids and they work hard, and we’re just going to keep doing what we do.”

 

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