HANOVERTON - Only about 11 miles separate Salem and United Local High Schools, and although the Quakers and Golden Eagles reside in different conferences, their rivalry has been no less intense than many others in the region.
"It's a big game, a natural rivalry," United head coach Mike Ward said. "All the kids know each other. It's gonna be a big night."
Both squads fell in their opening-season contests. Salem was edged at Liberty 21-17 while United got behind early and couldn't quite recover in a 34-20 loss at Malvern.
The Quakers, under the direction of new head coach Ron Johnson, had trouble finishing off drives against the Leopards and Liberty used it to its advantage snapping an 18-game school losing streak.
"We need to finish drives and finish tackles," Johnson said.
Johnson said despite the defeat, he came away from Friday night's game inspired and impressed.
"I've been doing this 26 years and have had 26 first games," he said. "And that was as good a first game I've ever been a part of as far as the things that you as a team can control. We didn't have silly penalties. We didn't turn the ball over. That shows you how much attention the guys are paying to detail."
Salem is riding a three-game winning streak in as many years against the Eagles. Former head coach Mike Kopachy went 3-0 in his tenure against United and Johnson hopes to make it a clean sweep for his Quaker seniors.
"I think it'd be very big for them," Johnson said of winning four straight against United. "The seniors are locked in and focused. They're very aware of some of the things they can accomplish, and beating United for the fourth time is one of them."
Ward has been impressed with what he's seen from Salem and its new head coach.
"Coach Johnson has a fantastic resume," Ward said. "They are a spread team and they'll take advantage of the mis-matches they have. I'm very impressed with their young quarterback (Trace Jenkins), and Marcus Crittenden is quite a player, too. They give him the ball in so many places."
Crittenden led Salem offensively at Liberty with 11 carries for 79 yards as well as seven catches for 95.
Salem's Jake Carner hauled in 42-yard touchdown pass from Jenkins early in the game, and Jenkins also found Brendan Webb from three-yards out.
"We're also impressed with their wideouts," Ward said of Webb and Carner. "They're good athletes who can catch the ball, so they have a lot of different weapons. We're gonna have to match up with them and keep them covered."
For both Salem and United, Friday night will be about continued improvements offensively, but bigger still it will be adjusting on the defensive side of the ball.
Salem gave up 330 yards on the ground. United didn't fare much better allowing 322.
"We've got to do a better job of stopping the opponent," Ward said. "We want to score more than 20 points when you put up the offensive numbers we did (372 total yards), but our focus this week was to get better on defense."
The same goes for Salem who will need to limit big plays from United standouts like quarterback Garrett Beech and wideout Mike Martin. Beech ran for 140 yards last week including a 63-yard touchdown scamper. He also threw for 185 yards and two scores. Martin, although he didn't find the end zone last week, has been a big-play receiver for the Eagles and he racked up four catches for 100 yards against the Hornets.
Salem gave up touchdown runs of 54 and 38 yards. So the week two winner in Hanoverton may just be the team who allows the fewest big plays.
"We just have to make sure we're very cognizant of where the quarterback is at all times," Johnson said.
Salem leads the series 5-3 since 2004.
"It's been a nice series," Ward said. "We won a couple early on, now they've won some in a row. It would be great to get one back this week. They're a much larger school, but we feel we can compete with them."
Johnson is proud of the way his team has switched gears so quickly to prepare for the Eagles.
"We've had a great week," he said. "It started Friday after the game. These guys had a great attitude in the locker-room and great resolve, and they've kept it up."
Kickoff is 7 p.m. Friday in Hanoverton.