With just one non-conference game on this year's schedule because of the addition of two new teams to the 3AA ranks, the Salem Greyhounds stepped directly into conference battle with a home game against the Marked Tree Indians on Friday the 13th of September.
From a fan's perspective, it would be better for the top two teams in the conference from a year ago to meet late in the season with the title on the line instead of the second game of the year.
The Greyhounds (0-2) were looking to square matters from last season when the Indians handed Salem their only conference loss by a score of 42-7.
Marked Tree (1-1) demonstrated just why they are defending 3AA champions as they scored on their first three offensive possessions en route to a 20-6 win in this year's game.
"Typically you would like a little more game experience before opening conference play this early," said Greyhound assistant coach Wayne Guiltner. "But with a team like Marked Tree, it's good to get them early before they get warmed up."
The Indians wasted little time in getting on the scoreboard as they took the opening kickoff and put together an eight-play, 78-yard drive behind the running of senior tailback Anquion Williams.
Williams, who led the Indians in rushing with 154 yards on 24 carries, was rewarded for his work on the Indian's first drive as he plunged across the goal line from 7-yards out at the 8:23 point of the first period to put Marked Tree up 6-0.
The PAT attempt failed due to a bad snap.
The Greyhounds failed to build any kind of an offensive attack on their first series as senior tailback Jamie Sisk carried the ball a couple of times for two yards and a first down pass from senior quarterback Luke Barker to Duane Slagley out of the backfield was called back because of an illegal formation.
Marked Tree suffered no such fate as they got the ball back and hit paydirt on second down-and-long as senior quarterback Sugar Ray Jones hit senior wideout Russell Gray on a deep post-pattern for a 74-yard touchdown and a 12-0 Indian lead at the 5:28 mark.
Jones finished the evening two-of-six for 75 yards through the air.
The Greyhound offense started clicking on their second series from scrimmage as Barker completed his first pass of the night on a hitch route to junior wideout Jake Bontrager.
A bootleg around the left side of the line by Barker and a 15-yard personal foul called on the Indians resulted in a 26-yard gain for Salem and put the ball on the Marked Tree 25 yard line with 4:32 left in the first quarter.
Jamie Sisk took over from that point as he carried the ball four consecutive times and put the ball into the end zone from 11 yards out to narrow the gap to 12-6, Marked Tree. Sisk finished the game with 16 carries for 52 yards.
The Indian offense took center stage again as they drove from their own 11 yard line in nine plays to cross the Salem goal line for the third time on the evening.
Williams ran the ball in from three yards out for his second TD of the game and Jones rang up the two-point conversion for a 20-6 lead at the 9:45 point of the second quarter. In addition to his 75 yards passing, Jones added 102 yards on the ground for the Indians
With the ball at the Marked Tree 46 yard line and 56 seconds until the half, Salem tried to pull closer.
Barker (eight-for-20, 58 yards in the air for the game) hit senior wideout Robert Nelson on a fourth-and-five play that put the ball at the Indian's 16 yard line with seven seconds left. Nelson finished the game with 16 yards receiving.
The Greyhounds failed to capitalize on this as Barker bobbled the snap from center in the shotgun formation to leave Marked Tree with a 20-6 lead at the half.
The Salem defense stiffened in the second half as they were quicker to the ball and kept the Indians out of the end zone.
"I think in the first quarter we kind of treated them like we had in the past," said Guiltner. "After that we realized we were as good as they are. Our defense bent some in the last three quarters but we didn't break."
The Marked Tree defense was equally aggressive as they held the Greyhounds on their end of the field for most of the second half as the game ended with the score from the half, 20-6, Marked Tree.
"I think we found out that we're capable of passing a little more. We don't have the number of receivers we've had in the past, but we do have some good ones and a good quarterback in Luke. Our offense will keep getting better," said Coach Guiltner. "We also found out some things about our personnel on defense. I think shutting them out in the second half gives us some positive momentum.
The Greyhounds take to the road for the first time Sept. 20 as they visit Parkin for a conference game.