SALEM-The second year of Salem head coach Ron Johnson's tenure is set to begin on Friday when the Quakers host Liberty in a rematch of last season's opener.
Last year, in Johnson's first game, the Quakers and the Leopards battled back-and-forth. With four minutes to go, Salem held a slim 17-14 lead before Liberty drove for the go-ahead touchdown. The Quakers took over with a minute left and drove all the way to the Liberty 15 before running out of time.
A little over a year later, Johnson is still searching for his first win at Salem after going 0-10 in 2012.
"They say that the greatest improvement in a season is between week one and week two, and I think the same can be said for building a program," Johnson said.
"We are in the second year of our program and I think we have made great strides."
The Quakers certainly don't lack for experience, returning nine starters on offense and seven on defense from a team that lost three games by eight points or less including a narrow defeat in the season's final game against league champion West Branch.
Highlighting the returnees is junior quarterback Trace Jenkins who threw for 1,640 yards and 14 touchdowns in 2012.
"We are very confident on the offensive side of the ball," Johnson said. "Our kids have a very firm grasp on what we are trying to do."
Johnson will be trying to accomplish a similar turnaround to what Liberty did last year. After going 1-19 the previous two seasons, the Leopards used their 2012 win against the Quakers as a springboard to a 9-3 season that ended with a second-round playoff loss.
"Anything can happen year to year," Johnson said. "They came in last year with two straight losing seasons and went out and won nine games. We expect to see a very confident team on Friday night."
The Leopards will be playing under a new head coach after Brian Jones stepped down after just one season. Taking his place is Kevin Cylar, who was previously an assistant at Ursuline. Cylar has plans to install a fast-paced, no-huddle attack and will have plenty of help with speedy returning quarterback Asim Pleas, who has a connection with Johnson.
"Believe it or not I actually recruited his dad when I was coaching at Miami (Ohio) in the '90s," Johnson said. "My pitch didn't work though, I think he wound up going to Illinois."
Containing Pleas has been Johnson's main worry as he prepares the Quakers.
"Without a doubt he (Pleas) is a threat to go the distance every time he has the ball," Johnson said. "We have to respect his ability and make sure we break down and tackle properly, we can't lunge or he will burn us."
Johnson said that each season stands on its own and that going winless in 2012 did not provide his team with any special motivation.
"No matter what your record is the goal is always to improve," Johnson said. "We've worked hard all summer and we plan on going out an being competitive in every game this year."
As close as they came to beating Liberty last year, Johnson believes the Quakers took some valuable lessons from that game which will help them this time around."
"We learned that we have to play a full 48 minutes and we have to take care of the football," Johnson said. "The key to the game for us will be to make them go the distance when they are on offense. If we can make them earn every yard I think we have a good chance."