By Dan Callahan
A huge throng of fans turned out Friday night for the Salem at Pulaski County football game in Dobson Stadium. But the issue was decided early, and Cougar fans went home disappointed. Two huge plays in the kicking game in the first three minutes of action resulted in the Spartans jumping to a 14-0 lead, and the Spartans never looked back. The final score of 56-14 was indicative of the game. The Spartans will now enjoy the 4A West Region 3rd seed and opening round bye in the playoffs next week, finishing their regular season 9-1.
The Cougars finish the regular season 7-3, but even after the lopsided defeat, still managed to qualify for the region playoffs by the scantest of margins. E.C. Glass entered the game with a .3 advantage in the ratings over Pulaski Co., however, the Hilltoppers saw each team they had defeated during the season lose, and the Cougars finished with a .1 margin over Glass for the 12th seed and will open the playoffs next Friday at Amherst, who was defeated by D2 stronghold Appomattox.
Even though it was a relief for the program to qualify for the playoffs for a third straight season, the loss was deflating to head coach Stephen James. “Nothing but an old fashioned out behind the woodshed sort of thing. There’s not much you can say. I guess you have to say it was a poor job by everybody involved in this program and that includes me. We didn’t see this coming. The kicking game got us down early, and we never recovered. It looked like we never practice pass defense. We managed to give our quarterback (Bryant Grubb) time to throw tonight, but we couldn’t get open, and many times it was because of confusion on our pass routes, and we’ve been running them for four months. Give credit to Salem. That’s a fine football team, well coached, they execute, and played well. We didn’t.”
How do you recover from this kind of loss with the playoffs just days away? “One, we have another opportunity to show we’re better than what we looked like tonight. It’s a whole new thing. The playoffs are single elimination. The next time you lose, it’s your last game. That should be incentive enough to get ready to play,” said James.
This game turned upside down before Pulaski County even had time to break a sweat. Viante Tucker actually bobbled a bouncing opening kickoff, but still stepped through the Cougar coverage team, turned to the outside and ran 76 yards for a touchdown and the game was only 16 seconds old. Then following the kickoff Vincent Pinello blocked a Cougar punt and the Spartans were first and goal at the PCHS 10. Two plays later Riley Fox went over from the seven. There was still 9:22 left in the first quarter and it was already, 14-0 Salem
The Cougars never recovered. The Spartans then went to the passing game. Noah Beckley only threw nine passes, but completed seven and four of them went for touchdowns, usually to wide open receivers. Eight different players carried the ball for Salem, five different players caught passes. Tucker had a 63-yard touchdown catch and run, and a five yarder, Pinello had a 53-yard catch and run, and also a 10-yard touchdown catch. Beckley finished with 208 yards passing. Salem ran for 199, and had a total offense of 407 yards, and this with a continuing clock in the second half.
Hunter Thomas scored on a five yard sweep in the second quarter for the Cougars, and Jamall Edmonds had a one yard score in the fourth. Pulaski Co. finished with 62 yards on 28 rushing attempts, and Grubb was four of 12 passing for 87 yards. Dontay Brown had a 400-yard catch for the Cougars. Pulaski Co. totaled 149 yards of total offense, its lowest output of the season. Thomas needed 127 yards to set the career rushing record for the Cougar program, but finished with 61 on 16 carries.