For Salem, Friday nights season opener against Heritage was about beating a county rival, yes, but it was clear before the game that closure was on the Seminoles minds, too.
After honoring late coach Jeff Blount, Salem clearly had fewer first-game jitters than their guests in a 21-3 win.
Salem held a brief pregame memorial for Blount, an assistant coach who died of cancer in 2008. Then, players both teams met in the middle of the field for pregame prayer in his honor.
Then Salem fullback Julian McLean ran for 84 yards and scored two touchdowns (one running and one receiving) to spark the offense. The Seminole defense limited Heritage to 116 total yards in avenging last years 21-14 loss to the Patriots.
"If it wasnt for coach Blount, half the seniors wouldnt be playing," said McLean. "My freshman year he pushed us, and he was an inspiration to all of us.
Jarrett Brown played both ways the final three quarters after stepping in at quarterback when JoJo Smith went down with an ankle injury, and he led the Seminoles to two touchdown drives, punching in the clinching score late in the third quarter.
"This game last year was the last time we saw Coach Blount," Brown said. "We just wanted to win it for him."
The win for Salem evened the all-time series between the two schools at eight wins apiece.
After day-long rains left the field damp from the beginning, each team fumbled twice in the opening quarter. The Patriots lost both of theirs, and Salem turned one of those into the games first points.
Salem fumbled a pitch on each of its first two possessions but fell on the ball each time. But Heritage fumbled away its first possession after quarterback Andre Wilson ran for a couple of quick first downs. Four plays later, Jermonte Lowe coughed the ball up on a punt return to give the ball back to the Seminoles.
Breon Prad recovered at the Heritage 46, and Salem then took seven plays to travel 46 yards for the first score, an 8-yard touchdown pass from Smith to McLean at the 11:08 mark of the second period.
"We were moving the ball," said Heritage coach Chad Frazier, "and that deflated us. Then our defense couldnt get off the field on third downs, and that deflated us."
Heritage, playing without Clemson commitment Garry Peters, found difficulty getting anything going in the first half, both from Peters absence and from the damp conditions. The Patriots ran 12 offensive plays in the first half compared with 35 by Salem.
"Our defense played great," said Salem coach Chad Estes. "We gave ourselves some opportunities early and we stopped ourselves with penalties and fumbles, but I’m proud of the way the kids played."
The Seminoles put together a coach’s dream of a drive to go up 14-0, moving 41 yards in 14 plays and consuming 6:42 before McLean scored from a yard out with 18 seconds left in the first half.
Salem put the game out of reach after a short punt and Tyler Askews return set the Noles up on the Heritage 21 midway through the third period. They needed just two plays to make it 21-0 when Brown strolled in from 18 yards out.
Heritage put itself in scoring position on the following drive, moving from its 28 to the Salem 15, but Wilson, who finished with 65 yards rushing on 15 carries came up short on a fourth-down run.
The Patriots got on the board by virtue of good field position early in the fourth period. They started on the Salem 36 after a short punt, and when their drive stalled on the Seminole 10, Tyler Peoples came on to boot a 27-yard field goal.