Salem started the season 2-3 last year before catching fire and winning six games in a row before falling to Central (Park Hills) 42-3 in the Class 3 District 1 Championship game. The Tigers finished 8-4 overall and was the best record Salem has had since going 6-4 in 2012.
That deep playoff run has Salem’s returning players hungry for even more this year.
“That group of kids last year had a special experience of playing together and really seeing what it took to get to that next level. That just ignited a fire under these kids in the offseason that they had places to go and unfinished business,” head coach Brian McNamee said. “Those kids we have returning have been great leaders. They know what it took to get there (to the district championship game) and they have instilled that on these younger players and kids we have filling in.”
Five starters return on each side of the ball for Salem.
Chandler Gray returns after starting at running back last season, but will step up to quarterback this year. He led the team in rushing last year with 107 carries for 610 yards and seven touchdowns. He was a second-team all-conference selection as a running back.
“He (Gray) has caught on very quickly to option football. His footwork and reads are good. He possesses that breakaway speed at quarterback that we didn’t have last year,” McNamee said. “Chandler brings a 4.47 40 (yard dash) to the game. Any time you run option football and have a kid that can run like that just opens a whole lot more avenues for you. He throws the ball really well.”
Senior Sam Ball (running back) and sophomore Brandon White (fullback) will join Gray in the backfield. Ball had 326 yards rushing and four touchdowns on 71 carries last season.
Any player could be the star on the Salem offense on any given night, which is the way McNamee likes it.
“We take what the defense gives us,” McNamee said. “One game it may the fullback for a lot of yards. One game it may be the quarterback for a lot of yards. Sometimes it is those halfbacks. Our group of running backs we have all know their role. They understand option football and that tonight might not be their night, but it is coming in the near future because when you shut down one part it opens another part up. We have a lot of unselfish running backs that love playing football and running the ball, but will also block and do their job for the rest of the kids as well.”
Up front, first-team all-conference offensive lineman Nate Case returns to anchor the unit. Fellow captain Kolson Seay also returns on the offensive line and will play defensive line. The other three spots along the front are up for grabs among newcomers.
“We look to these two to navigate the offensive line and get (the new linemen) up to speed and tutor them along until they are seasoned,” McNamee said. “By the time you play one to three games they are not beginners anymore. These guys have done a great job helping them out along the way.”
Defensively, Ball is the star at linebacker. He led the team with 90 tackles last year on his way to a first-team all-conference selection at the position.
“Sam is a hitter. He loves the game of football,” McNamee said. “Some kids play football and they will tackle you. Then there are other kids that just have that instinct to play the game the way it is meant to be played. Sam would play football 24 hours per day if he could. He has had a great offseason in the weight room. He is our strongest athlete on the football team. He sets the example in the weight room by action. On the football field he is vocal, enthusiastic and a go-getter. He is a linebacker cut from the mold the way they are supposed to be.”
White will join Ball at linebacker and play some defensive back. Gray will play some at defensive back this year, but not as much as last season to help keep him fresh for offense. He had two interceptions on defense as a junior. Tristan Newman is a returning starting safety and will also see carries in the backfield. Newman is the second-leading returning tackler coming off of a 60-tackle campaign last year.
The big focus for Salem this season will be to take the momentum from last year’s district and conference runner-up finishes and build on it.
“Last year’s group of seniors brought the winning tradition back to Salem High School and got the ball rolling in the right direction,” McNamee said. “Our football team has fed off of that and that is the direction we want to go.”
Salem opens the season on Aug. 24 at home against St. James.