By Matt Williams
---- — Graduated quarterback Christain Dunston has a hand in 22 of the Salem High football team’s touchdowns last fall. But instead of trying to figure out how to replace all those points, the Witches plan to play great defense this season.
With seven of 11 starters returning to a defense that held opponents under 25 points six times in last year’s 4-7 campaign, Salem wants to control the line of scrimmage. The Witches have speed at all three levels of defense and, by getting to the football quickly and in groups, they’re hoping to dictate the pace of games.
“It’s our strong point,” said Austin Connolly, one of four senior captains who will start at safety and quarterback. “A lot of us on defense have been starting since we were sophomores, so we have a lot of experience together.”
Connolly is joined by fast, athletic corners in Shakir White (the team’s leading returning wide receiver and a dangerous kick returner) and Anferne Jimenez. Peter Slattery will also play safety. The linebackers are Christian Costa, junior Genrri Rosario, senior captain Josh McRae and Aaron Palmer, and captains Ian Carter and Pat Charlton fill out the front four along with senior Wilton Echavarria.
On offense, Austin Connolly takes over at quarterback. Palmer and Rosario were both effective carrying the ball a year ago and will be called on to move the chains this season. The Witches hope to control the clock with a solid offensive line.
“We know we have to establish our own identity on offense and won’t be the same team from last year with big plays,” said Connolly. “We’re going to pound the ball and use some play action.”
The Witches are also looking forward to the opening of a renovated Bertram Field, although construction issues have set a return to their home field back to a possible November date. As a result, Salem will be playing at least three home games at Bishop Fenwick in their 10th season under head coach Scott Connolly.
“It’ll be our home away from home,” said Austin Connolly. “We all love going into other stadiums when the atmosphere is great and the crowd is big. That gets us going. We’re looking forward to seeing the new Bertram, but we’ll turn this into a positive.”
After scrimmages with St. John’s Prep, Pingree and Hamilton-Wenham, the Withces are preparing for next week’s season opener at Gloucester. In the newly formed Division 3 Northeast, Salem wants to compete with rivals from the NEC and beyond.
Salem has improved every year that these seniors have been on varsity. They got their feet wet with a 1-10 season as sophomores and improved to 4-7 a year ago, with six of those losses coming by less than two touchdowns. Taking another step forward is the ultimate goal.
“Our main goal it to try to win every game on the schedule as it comes, take the one in front of us one at a time,” said Connolly. “Overall, we’d love to try to do something that hasn’t been done in Salem since 1999, and that’s make the playoffs.
“The seniors all feel that way. We’d love to do that and it’d be a great way to end our careers.”