SALEM-A long offseason of work and preparation is finally behind the Salem football team, now comes the real thing.
Tonight, the Quakers will embark on their 2014 season against an unfamiliar opponent when they travel to Mineral Ridge for a 7 p.m. kickoff.
"It's about time," Salem coach Ron Johnson said. "Our guys have put in a lot of hard work in the weight room and on the practice field. They are anxious to see if it paid off."
Salem athletic director Todd Huda believes this to be the first time the Quakers have ever faced the Rams in football. The matchup was born out of a mutual friendship between Huda and former Rams coach Doug Velasquez-who left Mineral Ridge last year after one season.
"Doug used to coach at Salem," Huda said. "He and I have remained friends since he left. We both had an open date and we thought it would be a good fit."
According to Huda, this is the first time the Quakers have played on a Thursday since 2009, when they opened the season with a 42-34 loss to Girard.
"I haven't heard any reaction positive or negative to beginning on Thursday," Huda said. "It was something Mineral Ridge really wanted to do, and we were fine with it."
"I don't think it matters to the kids what day we open on," Johnson said. "It could be Wednesday, Thursday, whatever, they are just ready to get out there."
Tonight's opener marks the first of two straight games pitting the Quakers against smaller-sized schools from the Inter-Tri County League (Salem plays United in week two).
"It's nice for us to open against some local teams," Johnson said. "I think it generates some interest in the community and gets people excited."
When they take the field, the Quakers will encounter a Rams team that lost its two leading rushers (Josh Goss and Mike Eaton) from a team that finished 5-5 last year. The Rams will also be adjusting to new head coach Jeff Whittaker-a Mineral Ridge alum.
"They lost their two leading rushers, but they seemed very big and physical up front," Johnson said. "Their line on both sides of the ball is pretty good."
Johnson is also concerned with Mineral Ridge starting running back Sam Kooyman-the Rams lone returnee at the position-who averaged 9 yards per carry in limited duty last season. He will go against a Quakers defense that gave up 20 points or more in every game in 2013.
"He is an exceptional athlete," Johnson said, "He reminds me a lot of Ryan Kohler from Springfield, who we scrimmaged. We will have our hands full"
The Quakers expect to be up for the challenge. After going 3-17 in his first two seasons, Johnson returns seven starters on both offense and defense. The time is now for the team to make its move.
"We feel like our program and our philosophy are both in place now after two full seasons," Johnson said. "We got a lot stronger in the offseason on both offense and defense. We expect to be greatly improved."
There were no presale tickets sold because Mineral Ridge is not in school yet. Huda does not think it will negatively affect attendance.
"I think we'll have a nice crowd," Huda said. "We usually travel pretty well, and I think a lot of people are excited that the season is starting."