Dominating on both sides of ball, Salem cruises to S/C Group 1 championship

Jahki Coates and Jessiah Gildersleeve fueled an opportunistic offense, while its defense proved to be lights out.

It was the perfect recipe for a thorough victory on the final day of the 2021 high school football season.

Salem capped a magical year in style Sunday, defeating previously unbeaten Woodbury 34-8 in the NJSIAA/Rothman Orthopaedics Football Championships South/Central Group 1 regional final at Rutgers University.

The Rams were bigger, stronger and faster. And on the big stage here at SHI Stadium, it was more than obvious.

“It starts off in the summer. One thing you can’t do is beat Salem football without the weight room,” Coates said. “All we do is lift weights and condition. If your body is not in shape to go pound-for-pound, you’re going to be in a hard game with us.

“They weren’t ready for that pound-for-pound football, so we just took advantage of it and did what we do best – ran the ball down their throats.”

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Salem (11-2) rushed for 235 yards and finished with 292 yards of total offense. Coates ran for 102 yards on 14 carries, scoring on a 2-yard run in the closing minutes. He also completed 5-of-9 passes for 57 yards.

“Growing up and being one of the only three-year starters in the program, I took the responsibility of taking control of the game,” Coates said. “It was a great season. I’m only a junior, so I expect to be back. I like this feeling and want more.”

Gildersleeve ran for a game-high 113 yards and a pair of touchdowns, setting the tone with a 15-yard scoring run on Salem’s opening drive. His last covered 12 yards with 8:09 to play in the fourth. It pretty much put any thoughts of a Woodbury comeback to rest.

“It was toughness, effort and attitude,” Gildersleeve said. “We punched them in the mouth. We were a way more physical team than them. The running backs did our job. We lowered our shoulder and got as many yards as we could every run.

“We made history.”

Woodbury (12-1) never got going, held to just 88 yards and five first downs. The Thundering Herd had minus-11 yards rushing and were 0-for-9 on third-down conversions.

“They were good, they played together, they did what was necessary to win a football game. It was hard for us to combat (their pass rush) today,” Woodbury coach Anthony Reagan said.

“Honestly, today wasn’t the outcome we wanted or expected. But it’s not tough because of everything these guys did. They restored the Woodbury football program to be back on the scene that it is. Yeah, we didn’t get this game but nothing that happened today takes away from what we did this year. Yeah, it hurts more but that’s because it’s our last game.”

HS Football: Woodrbury vs. Salem - NJSIAA South, Group 1 Regional Championship

Anthony Selby (2) of Salem catches a touchdown pass in front of Jordon Smith (21) of Woodbury during the NJSIAA South, Group 1 Regional Championship football game between Woodbury and Salem at Rutgers’ SHI Stadium in Piscataway, NJ on 12/5/21.Chris Faytok | NJ Advance Media

Salem finished with eight sacks – three by Amare Smith, giving the junior linebacker 19 to set the program record. Josh Johnson held the previous mark of 18.

“We worked on rushing the passer all practice; we worked on the get-off, worked on getting around (linemen), getting through the holes and it showed here,” Smith said.

“I use my speed; I’m the Salem County 100-meter champion. I use my hand work to get to the quarterback. It’s amazing (to have 19 sacks). I thank my dad for believing in me. I thank my coaches for working with me and just picking me up.”

Nasir Thompson added a pair, while Gildersleeve and Jeheem Bernhardt also recorded a sack. Angel Torres-Cruz and Jayden Wright combined for the other. Thompson and Anthony Selby had interceptions.

“We wanted to establish our physicality and speed. Woodbury is a fast team, so we had to match their physicality and speed,” Salem coach Montrey Wright said. “We were looking for that perfect game. We were level-headed and played our style of football.”

Aside from a botched play on special teams, the Ram Gang simply would not be denied.

Football: Salem vs. Woodbury , December 5, 2021

Amare Smith (11) of Salem sacks Bryan Johnson (10) of Woodbury during the NJSIAA South, Group 1 football final between Salem and Woodbury at SHI Stadium in Piscataway, NJ on Sunday, December 5, 2021. Scott Faytok | For NJ Advance Media

Salem held a 14-0 halftime lead, with touchdowns on its first two possessions and a defensive effort that held Woodbury to just 23 yards of total offense. Its defense registered five sacks over those 24 minutes.

Woodbury cut its deficit in half when JaBron Solomon returned a punt 65 yards to the house with 9:06 left in the third quarter. The junior should have been stopped three times, but he found a way to slip each tackle and then picked up a key block along the sideline that allowed him to race untouched the rest of the way.

Momentum had shifted and it was a brand new game, only to see Salem bounce right back.

On its ensuing possession, Coates hit Ramaji Bundy on an 18-yard TD strike. Nate Wilson added his third PAT kick and the Rams had their two-score advantage back in less than three minutes.

They would add two more scores in the fourth quarter, sealing the historic victory.

Football: Salem vs. Woodbury , December 5, 2021

Salem’s Jasir Thompson (33) and Ramaji Bundy (4) react after an interception by Thomspon during the NJSIAA South, Group 1 football final between Salem and Woodbury at SHI Stadium in Piscataway, NJ on Sunday, December 5, 2021. Scott Faytok | For NJ Advance Media

“Bringing home the sectional championship was a good feeling. Bringing this championship home is even better,” the Salem coach said. “They had my back all year. With the situation with my mom (who passed away from COVID) and things like that, there’s not more I could ask from these guys. They came out and kept their word. They rallied around me.”

Said Coates: “Respect. Every single week we always come in as underdogs. We play like it, but we don’t feel like it. We forever play like underdogs and don’t get into the politics. We just play Salem football, and that’s what we did today.”

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Kevin Minnick covers the West Jersey Football League. He can be reached at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @kminnicksports