Warriors set to clash with two-time defending state champ Salem in state semifinals

Isaiah Allen

STEPHENS CITY – Back in 2013, Sherando High School’s football team beat Salem in a slugfest for the chance to compete for the VHSL Group 4A state championship game. Those two schools clash again this weekend with the stakes very much the same.

The Warriors, coming off win over Liberty (Bealeton) in the Region 4C championship game last week, travel to Salem for a 2 p.m. kickoff  today in the Class 4 state semifinals. The winner advances to next weekend’s state championship game at the College of William & Mary against the winner of Saturday’s other state semifinal between Lafayette and Louisa.

For Sherando, which has never won a state title and missed the playoffs last season to snap a string of seven straight postseason appearances, a win this weekend would send the program to its fifth state championship game appearance. Salem, meanwhile, is the back-to-back Group 4A state champ and is hunting its fourth straight appearance in the title game.

“I think definitely after we beat Liberty that just evoked a lot of self pride and a lot of sense of urgency that it’s finally here and that we’ve gotta go and seize it,” Warriors junior lineman Isaiah Allen said Wednesday of the emotion surrounding the preparation for the state semifinal matchup. “I know me and a couple of the other linemen, we spent a lot of time together just ever since we beat Liberty, just hours after practice just being together by ourselves just talking about what we need to do, because now it’s finally here and we just want to seize the opportunity.”

Sherando and Salem have taken similar routes to Saturday’s semifinal showdown.

Michael Perry

The Warriors (11-2) have reeled off seven consecutive victories, while Salem (11-2) has won eight straight, and both teams avenged an earlier loss in last week’s regional championships – Sherando by beating Liberty 33-21 and the Spartans by topping Blacksburg, the defending Group 3A state champ, 33-32 in a thriller for the Region 4D title.

When Sherando and Salem last collided in the state semifinals in Stephens City four years ago, the Warriors squeezed out a 7-0 win by turning a Spartan fumble into a short touchdown drive late in the third quarter. Neither team amassed 200 yards of offense in the game.

“If you were here in 2013 it was two teams just trying to duke it out, who could out-execute the other one and who could outhit the other one, and who was gonna make a mistake,” Warriors head coach Bill Hall said. “And that game, I felt, early on, it was like ‘whoever makes a mistake here the other team’s gonna win.’ And that could very easily happen this week.”

Hall already knows the 2017 Salem Spartans are going to look a lot like the 2013 version. One look at the game film this week showed that Salem looks the “exact same,” Hall said, adding that the Spartans are going to line up in the I-formation and pound the football in an offense that is averaging 41.5 points and 436 yards per game.

“They do a couple different things but their offense, from the uniforms to the way they fire off the ball to the scheme they run, it doesn’t change a lot,” Hall said. “I think they’re a great example that you don’t have to be all flashy and bells and whistles to be successful. They’ve proved that.”

Salem senior running back De’Angelo Ramsey, listed at 6-foot, 211 pounds, has rushed 162 times for 1,814 yards and 23 touchdowns and is averaging 11.2 yards per carry. He leads a Spartan offense that is averaging 278.5 yards rushing per game.

Sherando’s defense, meanwhile, enters the contest limiting opponents to 242.6 yards of offense per game and 129.8 yards on the ground.

“Defensively we just gotta execute and be where we need to be, fit in the right places,” Warriors senior linebacker Mike Perry said. “And definitely be physical. We’ve gotta be more physical than them, and if we’re more physical than them we’re definitely gonna win the game.”

The Spartans also showed a penchant for the big play in last week’s win over Blacksburg, as they scored three touchdowns of 39-plus yards in the comeback victory that saw them trailing by 11 points in the fourth quarter.

Salem junior quarterback Jack Gladden has thrown for 1,826 yards, 24 touchdowns and seven interceptions, while senior receiver Viante Tucker has 34 receptions for 748 yards and seven TDs. Tucker is one of four Spartans with at least six receptions who are averaging over 19 yards per catch.

Sherando’s own explosive offense knows all about big plays. Behind the arm of junior quarterback Hunter Entsminger (2,566 yards passing, 31 touchdowns, five interceptions) and the legs of junior running back T.J. Washington (2,819 all-purpose yards, 32 TDs), the Warriors are averaging 43.2 points per game, 403.5 yards per contest and have 95 plays of 20 yards or more.

Salem’s defense, like Sherando’s, has excelled in taking the football away (the Spartans have forced 30 turnovers to the Warriors’ 35) and is allowing 20.2 ppg this fall.

Allen said the Warriors relish opportunities like the one they will get on Saturday, where they get the chance to go toe-to-toe with a good football team, strength vs. strength, for the chance to prove who is the better football team.

“These are the games we like to play just because a lot of our guys, we just like to know that if somebody thinks they’re better than us, we like to go out and play and let them get to know for themselves whether they’re better than us or not,” Allen said. “I think this is definitely one of the type of games we like to play.”