(Photo courtesy of Brian Gallagher)

By MARK TRIBLE

South Jersey Glory Days Senior Football Writer

SALEM — The Central Jersey Group 1 final played here on Walnut Street on Saturday afternoon held quite a resemblance to the season for Salem High’s football team.

A fast start, a lull, then a flex to the finish.

Here they are. The 2022 Rams.

By virtue of a 33-14 win over Paulsboro, the blue-and-white are back-to-back sectional champs.

“Our mentality changed,” coach Montrey Wright said. “Guys had a lot of pressure on their backs.

“You win a championship the year before, you come back the following year and there’s a lot of pressure. We reeled it back in mentally and got stronger mentally. And here we are now.”

The fast start this season came with a 4-1 record, high regard in most South Jersey rankings. That lone loss came to Group 3 sectional finalist Camden at Rutgers by a touchdown.

In this title game, it came by way of a 16-0 lead just 5 minutes, four seconds into the game. Second-seeded Salem (8-4) scored in six plays on its first drive when Jahki Coates found Omarion Pierce for a 13-yard score.

On the next kickoff, the fourth-seeded Raiders (6-5) gathered a loose ball and ended up running backwards into the end zone. The safety made it 9-0.

The next possession lasted just three plays when Coates housed a quarterback run off the right side. It spanned 28 yards.

Then, the lull.

Over the course of autumn, it came with three losses to start October. A 7-6 home defeat to rival Woodstown. A 16-point Paulsboro second-half comeback followed by a 23-16 road setback. Then, Salem failed to score a point in a 6-0 shutout at West Deptford.

In game play, it came through the Raiders’ next drive. A facemask on the kick return put Paulsboro with good field position. Six plays later, Preston Moore plunged in from a yard out. He did it again on the two-point conversion to make it 16-8 with 3:47 left in the first stanza.

Midway through the second quarter, the Raiders climbed closer when Damire Avant sprinted for six from 19 yards out. After a conversion fail, it stood at 14-12 with 4:46 to play before halftime.

This is a rubber-meets-the-road scenario, one may have thought. Again, a mirror of the season.

For the Rams to meet their lofty expectations, they’d need to find a gear sorely missed in the three-game skid. To put away pesky Paulsboro, they’d need to find another gear as well.

In both cases, Salem shifted, found it and revved it up.

A wild 21-20 win here against Woodbury finished the regular season. Then, blowouts of Florence and Glassboro in the playoffs.

“We sat down and had meetings, we texted the group chat,” Coates explained. “Everybody was trying to play a role they didn’t have to.

“Everybody was trying to play Superman. Marvel, DC, all those superheroes, they’ve got members on the team at the end of the day. Everybody is good at something. Everybody can’t fly, everybody is not the fastest. Once we find out what we’re good at and we build, there was no one stopping us.”

When Ramaji Bundy took a 41-yard run to pay dirt with 2:32 left on 2nd-and-long, the lead went to 23-14. Things moved in motion for the Rams. After the visitors moved into the red zone, Bundy came up huge again.

He intercepted a fourth-down pass to keep it at 23-14 at halftime.

It made for an effort Bundy so sorely needed. The junior lost his grandmother last Saturday. He’d found out after last week’s semifinal.

“It was on my mind heavy,” Bundy said. “She was here, she was supporting me through every game.

“Once that happened, it really got to me. She really loved me like her own son. It broke me down. My grandma was my everything.”

As the clubs trotted back out onto the turf for the second half, the tapestry of another incredible clash seemed woven. Save for the final threads that could only be revealed by a tight finish.

Fans were packed in and deep along the fence lines that surround the field. One side red, one side blue. A slice of Americana, almost fit for an oil painting of what this sport means in proud, tough areas on Saturdays like this one in the sun-splashed afternoon — with hardware on the line.

There would be no classic for the neutral observer. Only for Salem fans.

The Rams’ defense didn’t allow a yard in the second half and snuffed out any chance for drama. Detric Simmons, the junior lineman, did plenty of damage. He said he had three sacks — though one fan said five and a coach said four — the big No. 56 eventually admitted he’d lost count.

Either way, he dominated. Another Coates-to-Pierce touchdown connection made it 30-14 in the third quarter. Randy Sayers’ 28-yard kick wrapped the points in the fourth.

“We executed and gave 100 percent,” Simmons said. “If we didn’t, we’d be home on the couch next week.”

Instead, they will play Woodbury at Cherokee School in the Group 1 state semifinals. The Herd (9-2) rolled Maple Shade on Saturday, 36-6.

Salem beat Woodbury in this stage of the season last year at Rutgers, 34-8. This playoff features an extra round where the first public state championships will be captured. That game will also take place at the state university.

But first, a final four matchup that is appropriate and will earn every ounce of the ballyhoos that come its way. This is especially true after that 1-point decision on Oct. 22. The Rams scored twice in the final 4:49 to win.

That’s when Simmons saw a shift in this team. He wasn’t sure the group had what it took prior to the escape.

No one was.

“Those last five minutes,” he said. “When we came back and executed to get those two touchdowns, I knew we would be back.”

They are indeed back.

“We’re just a big machine and we had loose bolts,” Coates said. “Now, we’ve tightened the bolts up and we’re a well-oiled machine going into the (state semifinal).”

Wright detailed how pleased he’d been with his team’s ability to come together down the stretch. He spoke with great pride about his ballclub.

But perhaps the message his defensive coordinator offered at halftime could cut to the truest thing about this group of champions.

Dave Hunt told them simply, “I’m not changing anything. Do what you can do.”

The Raiders didn’t gain another yard. The Rams gained their third sectional title in history, second in as many years.

No matter the twists and turns, this team’s true identity is clear. After all, it’s written on the trophy.

Mark Trible is a special high school football writer for South Jersey Glory Days. You can follow him on Twitter @MTrible. Also, catch his high school football show (The South Jersey Football Frenzy Show) every Wednesday at 7 p.m. at facebook.com/sjglorydays, and his “Hat’s Off” Podcast every Sunday at 9 a.m.