PISCATAWAY - Salem coach Montrey Wright tragically lost his mother to COVID-19 during the early stages of the 2021 campaign.
He vowed to dedicate this season to his mother and reach the ultimate goal in her honor.
Wright and his Rams did just that as they cruised past Woodbury, 34-8, in the NJSIAA South/Central Group 1 Regional Championship at SHI Stadium on Sunday afternoon.
The victory came two weeks after Salem had secured its first sectional title since 1983. The Rams finished the year with an 11-2 record and solidified themselves as the best Group 1 team in South Jersey.
“It’s a bittersweet year,” Wright said. “I mean (the players) made the year a lot easier for me to handle. Winning that championship definitely took a load off my back. I can’t ask this group of guys for anything right now because they came out and conquered. The city deserves it. This was something we definitely needed in the city and it was well overdue.”
Salem’s defense set the tone and held the Thundering Herd to minus-11 rushing yards on offense. The Rams also registered eight sacks for 58 yards and held Woodbury to only 88 yards of total offense over the duration of four quarters. The Thundering Herd were unable to convert on third or fourth down (0-for-11).
“It’s really tough for guys to run the ball on us,” Wright said. “We know Woodbury was a passing team. Their quarterback does extremely good things in the pocket. We wanted to make sure we kept him in the pocket, and just force a lot of turnovers and just get off the ball as well. Hats off to Woodbury — they’re a good ball club. They deserve to be here, but we just played better today.”
The Rams scored a pair of touchdowns on their first two possessions of the game and carried a 14-0 lead into halftime. Senior Jessiah Gildersleeve rushed for a 15-yard touchdown on the first drive and junior quarterback Jahki Coates completed the second drive with a 17-yard strike to Anthony Selby.
Coates currently holds an offer from Temple and was thankful for the opportunity to succeed at The Birthplace of College Football on Sunday.
“This is my first time actually playing in a college stadium,” Coates said. “The feeling is amazing. I just took advantage of my opportunities. If there (were any) coaches out here, I’m glad. I hope they (were able to see) what I can do on a big platform. Hopefully I get more offers going into my senior year and do what I do best — win games.”
Coates accumulated 49 of his 102 rushing yards on three carries during Salem’s first two scoring drives.
“We wanted to play fast,” Wright said. “We wanted to come in and establish ourselves fast. That’s what they did.”
Woodbury found a spark on a 65-yard punt return touchdown courtesy of Ja’Bron Solomon with 9:06 remaining in the third quarter. The score helped cut the deficit to six points.
The Rams proceeded to silence any murmurs of a comeback by rolling off 20 unanswered points.
Coates added two touchdowns — an 18-yard toss to Ramaji Bundy and a 2-yard run — in the second half and Gildersleeve scored on a 12-yard burst. Gildersleeve rushed for a game-high 113 yards.
“Coach Wright has a lot of trust in me,” Gildersleeve said. “Just doing this for (the coaches) and the whole Salem City — it feels great.”
The Thundering Herd concluded their campaign with a 12-1 record and brought home their first sectional title since 2009 along the way.
“Words can’t explain how proud I am of them,” Woodbury coach Anthony Reagan said. “I’m proud of our guys and all that they’ve done this year. (The loss) can’t take away the joy of what this team accomplished this year. No Woodbury football team has ever won 12 games before. They made history.”
The program will also bring back a significant number of players in 2022 including quarterback Bryan Johnson, leading receiver Ja’Bron Solomon, defensive stalwarts Dominic Abbatelli and Derron Moore, and two-way contributor Wilson Torres, among others.
Reagan’s son, Anthony Reagan, Jr., will also return from an ACL injury. Reagan, Jr. currently holds offers from Temple and West Virginia.
“We (only) have five seniors,” Reagan said. “You’re not gonna replace the group that we had, but they laid the foundation for this program. They’ll forever live on. It’s a different journey now. For me, I feel like our guys are gonna go into the offseason and really embrace the challenge to put ourselves in position to be able to do this again.”
As for the Rams, their plan is to enjoy the ‘right now.’ After all, it’s just an acquired mentality to come in and play hard for those sporting the royal blue and white.
“We just come in and play Salem football,” Coates said. “We will forever play like underdogs. That’s what we did today.”