New stadium, old rivals, familiar faces
Salem opens Seminole Stadium against county rival Rockdale

For the second straight Friday night, Rockdale County rivals square off on the gridiron, and, once again, this week's game features several interesting subplots.

First, Salem (0-1) will open its new on-campus Seminole Stadium tonight against Rockdale (1-0) at 7:30, so for the first time since opening their doors in 1992 the Seminoles now have a facility of their own.

"Of course, Salem playing its first home game ever is great, but it can also be a huge distraction," Salem coach Chad Estes said. "We have talked about that it is our job to play the game."

Second, two familiar faces that have histories with both squads will coach the teams tonight.

At Salem, Estes is in his third season as head coach of the Seminoles. Estes worked for six seasons as the defensive coordinator at Rockdale under then-head coach Matt Fligg never losing a game to Salem.

"I have enjoyed all my stops during my coaching career," Estes said. "But make no mistake about it; I am a Seminole first and foremost right now!"

Rockdale is led by first-year coach Mike Etheridge, who left Salem last year after seven seasons to become the Bulldogs' new boss.

"I'm excited about going back and I think it will be fun. It should be a great atmosphere for our kids to play in. We are glad we can help them open up their new stadium," Etheridge said. "I know a lot of their kids over there and they will be ready to play against us. In some ways it helps, but in others it doesn't, because kids grow up so much over the summer, some of them have really changed. I do respect the coaches and kids at Salem. They will do a good job against us."

Third, both teams opened the season last week with mixed results.

Salem is coming off a disappointing 21-7 setback against county rival Heritage. The Seminoles' offense struggled in the opener and had less than 100 yards of total offense.

"Every loss is tough, but we are playing a 10-game region schedule and we will have to be ready to play every week," Estes said. "I think that we are going to continue to get better every week. We only had nine returning starters this year, so we knew that were going to be some growing pains early in the season."

Rockdale opened the season with a 25-14 win over visiting Madison County, a perennial playoff contender in Region 8-AAAA, to pick up a victory in Etheridge's first game at the helm.

"I thought our kids played well. We still have a long way to go," Etheridge said. "But our kids are working hard to get better, and, as a head coach, that's all can I ask for.

"We are trying to take one step a time. We started talking about that this past spring, one step a time and one game at a time. This is more one step (tonight), but no matter what this is a big game for our program at Rockdale."

Two big keys for Salem this week will be getting its offense in gear and getting more intensity out of its defense.

"We need to control the ball on offense. Defensively, we need more intensity. I am expecting a different defensive effort tonight," Estes said. "We are going to have to be patient (on offense) and continue to do the things that we do best. We have to concentrate on Salem. We can't let Rockdale have the big play. Offensively, we need to put points on the board."

For Rockdale, Etheridge feels one key will be the focus of his team at the start of the game.

"I think we need to get our minds in the game from the start and not worry about all the stuff that will be going on around us," he said. "We will have to play sound defense and try to play keep away with our offense by not letting them have the ball. We also will need a sound kicking game."

Both coaches are impressed with their opponents as they prepare to match wits for the first time in this county rivalry.

"Rockdale is very athletic," Estes said. "They started off with an impressive victory over Madison County."

Etheridge said Salem's youth showed in its opener, but he expects to face a much better team tonight.

"Salem is young in a few spots and it showed in their first game," he said. "But you know they will be better this week. They have a lot of tradition over there and I'm sure they will bounce back."

Jeff Gillespie can be reached at jeff.gillespie@rockdalecitizen.com.