CONYERS - It's only the season opener, but there's plenty at stake tonight at Evans Memorial Stadium.
Salem and Heritage square off in a clash of county rivals that has plenty of subplots.
First, the Seminoles are riding the crest of a five-game winning streak over the Patriots, which has tied the all-time series at 7-7. So tonight's winner takes the lead in the series.
Second, this is the first time the teams have clashed at Evans Stadium, a facility they've shared since 2001. All the previous matchups were played at Reid Memorial Stadium to accomodate the crowds, but, with Evans being revamped with a visitors' section and Salem getting its own on-campus stadium this year, the squads now have facilities they can truly call their home fields.
"One of my concerns is seating," Heritage coach Chad Frazier said. "I'm looking forward to a packed house to open up the season, especially now that we can call Evans Memorial Stadium truly our house."
Third, even though it's the season opener, this game counts in the Region 8-AAAA standings, which turns up the heat in already-spirited rivalry. At the end of tonight's game, the winner will be at the top of the standings and the loser at the bottom.
"The team that makes the fewest mistakes will have the best chance to come out on top," Salem coach Chad Estes said. "I have concerns going into every game, but I just want our young kids to stay focused on what they can control and have fun. It's going to be a great atmosphere."
Fourth, both sides have high hopes to start this season.
The Seminoles are chasing their fourth Region 8-AAAA championship in the past five seasons and trying to reload after last year's 9-2 season.
"It is a little different feeling than last year's team. Our young kids are going to have to grow up in hurry," Estes said. "I thought it was a subpar performance at best (in our scrimmage at Sandy Creek). But I thought we had some great practices this week, despite all the rain. Hopefully, we got all the mistakes corrected."
On the other hand, the Patriots are looking to rebound from last year's 3-7 season and get into the playoff hunt in 8-AAAA.
"I'm excited," Frazier said. "There has been a lot of enthusiasm about this upcoming season. We're a little stronger, faster and overall more healthy than a year ago. We played well against Eastside (in our scrimmage). Our defense played lights out and our offense moved the ball well with the exception of penalties. We must be more disciplined and eliminate the little things that hold us back."
Fifth, it's an early season top-10 clash thanks to the GaSports.com coaches poll, which ranked Heritage No. 4 and Salem No. 10 this week.
If that's not enough, both teams feature some outstanding talent. Salem center Sam Watts has already given a verbal commitment to Mississippi State, while Heritage tight end Justin Jones has done the same with Kentucky. Heritage defensive tackle Melvin Jones is also being recruited by several Division I schools.
Estes said the key for his team will be keeping Heritage's offense off the field as much as possible.
"We have got to play good sound defense," he said. "They have a lot of playmakers on offense and we need to keep their offense off the field. (Garry) Peters is a playmaker (at quarterback). He will present problems for opposing defenses. They are spreading the field and letting their athletes make plays.
"They also do a great job on defense. I think their defensive line is their strength."
Frazier is impressed with Salem's defense.
"They have a very sound group (on defense)," he said. "They are big up front and very quick off the ball and athletic in the secondary. I am most impressed with their two defensive ends (Brandon Hill and DeJone Butler). I expect a mix of seven- and eight-man fronts with a number of coverages behind it.
"On offense, they're traditionally wing-T, but last year they were wing-T with elements of a spread style. This year, I expect them to have a good mix and to try and overpower teams with their big offensive line."
Jeff Gillespie can be reached at email@example.com.
SideBar: Salem at Heritage
When: Today, 7:30 p.m.
Where: Evans Memorial Stadium
Last meeting: Salem won 26-19 last year
Series: Tied 7-7, Salem has won five straight