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Salem Clinches Conyers Cup
Salem beats Rockdale 21-14, takes area crown

The Conyers crown is now a Seminole head dress.

Salem defeated Rockdale County 21-14 in the Bulldogs’ own den, helping the Seminoles sweep the "Conyers Crown" with wins over both Heritage (21-3 last week) and Rockdale to start the 2009 football season.

And they did it with one pitch.

Leading a hard-fought ground game of inches 7-6 near the end of the third quarter, Salem (2-0) running back Bradley Moon busted the game wide open. On second and long with their jersey back’s casting shadows toward their own end zone, Noles quarterback Jasijah Smith ran an option right, pulled in the defensive back and popped a lofty pitch in the air toward his tailback Moon. The senior running back — who coach Chad Estes had pointed to as a breakout candidate for his team since summer practice — eclipsed the Bulldogs (1-1) defense, racing 75 yards down the right sideline and set himself up for a 6-yard touchdown run a few plays later to start the fourth quarter. That gave Salem a 14-6 cushion, and changed the game for good.

"JoJo (Smith) made the pitch, my line blocked and I ran as hard as I could," Moon, who finished with a game-high 130 rushing yards said. "I just owe it all to those guys for making that play."

Estes, who uses the option attack as an important part of his offense, was happy to see it executed the way his staff wrote it up.

"We were an option team that had pitched the ball once in two games, it seems like," Estes said. "If you run, you have to pitch. And if you hit it, you can turn the game like it did."

Rockdale coach Michael Etheridge saw it coming, but his defense couldn’t stop the game’s biggest play.

"One pitch, that’s it," a pensive Etheridge said as he leaned on the fence just in front of his team’s darkened locker room. "They normally don’t pitch to that side or to Moon, but Bradley really turned it up right there."

Both teams began the game committed to the run, but it didn’t pay off immediately.

In the second quarter of a scoreless game, Rockdale continued a drive that started on its own 30-yard line the previous quarter, driving 70 yards and picking up six first down en- route to halfback Kyle Tippins punching it in on a 2-yard run to make it 6-0 Bulldogs after a partially blocked extra point. Tippins would finish with a team-high 79 rushing yards.

Estes’ men, however, replied immediately with a 35-yard drive that set them up just outside the red zone. But the drive stalled, causing Smith to loft up a pass near the goal line on fourth-and-5 that was broken up by cornerback Michael Griffiths.

Etheridge ordered his offense to kneel on it and take it into halftime.

Salem would flip the script in order to regain control in the second half.

From the opening kick of the third quarter, Salem marched down the field with renewed energy and multiple backs. Smith led his bunch back near the red zone, but this time broke on in with his first completed pass of the game — a 19-yarder to Moon. That set up a 1-yard touchdown run by Julian McLean and a good point-after attempt, capping a 65-yard drive to give Salem a 7-6 lead with 6:37 to play in the third.

Then came "the pitch."

Etheridge’s squad tried to get back into the game as the final quarter wore on, but a fumbled reverse in the backfield and one of Bulldogs quarterback Isaiah Gresham’s six incompletions turned the ball over on downs near the game’s end.

Gresham did hit a big 40-yard pass play to Tavaris Williams and a 6-yard TD pass to Dana Turner for his only two completions that pulled the Bulldogs within 21-14 after Tyler Askew’s 6-yard rush put Salem up by 15 two minutes earlier, but it was too late in the end.

All in all, it was a thriller that clinched the Conyers Cup for Salem, and coach Estes wouldn’t have it any other way.

"What’s better than high school football on a Friday night in Conyers, Georgia?" he said just after receiving a Gatorade bath from his players after the final whistle.

That’s a good question.