Last year’s trip to Coffee County was a game-changer for the Salem football program.
With hopes of making a deep playoff run, something the Seminoles hadn’t experienced in more than a decade, a chance to play against one of the state’s top programs was an easy sell for head coach Jarrett Laws.
While the Seminoles eventually lost that game 23-6, the experience gained was invaluable. In 2019, Laws expects that experience to serve a much different purpose when they travel back down to Coffee Friday night with an inexperienced group.
“We want to know how to execute versus a very disciplined tea,” Laws said. “Coffee is not going to make any mistakes. In our region, you have an Eastside team that is not going to make any mistakes, a Woodward Academy team that is not going to make any mistakes. All the way down the line, we have great teams.”
If we can measure up and limit our mistakes and compete a little bit against Coffee, it will give them a whole lot of confidence going into region play knowing that they’re going to face teams of similar caliber of execution.”
From an execution standpoint, Laws got his first taste as to just how challenging of a job he will have in 2019 after falling to cross-town rival Heritage 18-0 last Friday in a shortened game.
The Seminoles were out-gained in total yards, 281-106 and were held scoreless for the first time in 14 games. Having graduated more than 95 percent of their starters from one season ago, Laws had several key takeaways from their opening act.
“Kids can’t do it until they do it,” Laws said. “Most coaches will tell you that they have some go-to's that are consistent. You want want them relaxed in situations where the field may be tight and you’re trying to get points out of it. Our kids have never been in that situation.”
Laws’ first point showed midway through the second quarter when the Seminoles had an opportunity to tie or take the lead. After driving as far as the Heritage 2-yard line, the Seminoles came away empty following a failed fourth down conversion.
“As much as I hate to have come out of that drive without any points, I’d rather it happen now in a non-region situation so that when we finally get to region play, we’ve got some prior experience to fall back on,” Laws said. “Talking with a lot of them post game, I think they walk away from it understanding the importance that when you get close to it, you have to come away with points.”
What helped set up the drive, however, was something Laws had yet to see over the course of the long offseason.
In search of some momentum, the Seminoles achieved that thanks to an unnecessary roughness penalty against the Heritage special teams unit on a punt. An animated speech from Laws to his players followed.
“It was one of the first times that I have seen the kids get on one accord with the same mindset and check all of their egos at the door,” Laws said. “Young kids want some form of attention. They may have a ‘me’ situation going on rather than a ‘we’ situation. After the late hit, there was a moment where the kids looked at each other and felt like it was us against the world.”
While the momentum shift helped the Seminoles, Laws is hoping that the fire his players manifested from within can be created organically in the future, rather than a spark from an outside source.
“That emotional jump that we needed was sitting right there for us to take advantage of,” Laws said. “In the end, that and a dollar will get you a cheeseburger because you need the points, but it gives us a foundation where we can now tell our kids, this is what it takes to compete at the varsity level. Now we revert back to saying, can you do this consistently? It shouldn’t take an outside factor to put you in that space. You have to get in that space on your own.”
On defense, Laws got yet another good look at the youth he has to work with. While the Seminoles were able to force a turnover and two Heritage punts, Laws didn’t see enough consistency amongst his defensive unit.
“In the moments that they were getting it right, we look at good as anyone else in the area,” Laws said. “When you have to put it together for an entire drive, can you be consistent in your eye discipline and in your concentration? That’s where we’re lacking and that’s just a result of our immaturity.”
The big that that we’re talking about this week is not only getting to the game, but making sure that all week long we get as many snaps as possible to present as much information as possible.”
On Friday, Laws is expecting to see an improved Coffee team from the one that they saw last season. With an experienced group of players returning for the Trojans, execution on both sides of the ball will be at the forefront for Laws.
(Coffee) was very young last year, so the majority of their kids are coming back,” Laws said. “Coffee is not a rebuild program, it’s a reload program. Right now, we’re concentrating on not just winning the game, but winning every down that we can and remaining competitive.”
One thing Laws is not expecting to see out of his players are fear with most having made the trip down last season to watch from the sidelines.
“These guys got a good example from the team that went down and played Coffee very tough last year,” Laws said. “It sort of lessons the mystic of Coffee whereas instead of Coffee being so mythical, the kids can now look at it from a competitive standpoint because they remember what it looked like.”
While the Seminoles hope to leave with a stunning victory, leaving the game healthy will be key moving forward in the season.
“More importantly than anything else, we want to make sure that we come out on the other side of this health,” Laws said. “One advantage that we will have is that we will go into an off week after this game where we can heal some bruises and get a little extra teaching in.”