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As Alston goes, so goes Salem

Dione Alston remembers sitting in an ice bath, day after day, as summer turned to fall. If nothing else, it offered him a chance to think.

Salem running back Dione Alston at practice. (Ron Tarver/Staff Photographer)
Salem running back Dione Alston at practice. (Ron Tarver/Staff Photographer)Read more

Dione Alston remembers sitting in an ice bath, day after day, as summer turned to fall.

If nothing else, it offered him a chance to think.

"More than anything, I would think about how badly I wanted to help my team," said Alston, a senior running back on the Salem football team. "That's the worst part of being hurt: You want to be out there so bad. But there's really nothing you can do but sit in that ice bath, work with the trainers, and wait."

Alston missed parts of four games because of a thigh contusion, as his team plodded to a 2-3 start. The experience left him with pent-up motivation to make the most of his senior season.

Since stepping out of the ice bath and onto the field at full strength, he has thrived.

And so has his team.

Salem (8-3) will play Paulsboro (9-2) at noon, Saturday, at Rowan University for the South Jersey Group 1 championship.

The Rams enter the game on a six-game winning streak, largely because of the speedy, dynamic Alston.

"He just gives us that extra dimension. He gives us those extra facets to our offense," Salem coach Dennis Thomas said of Alston, who occasionally runs routes as a slot receiver in Salem's spread offense.

"He's a great player - more importantly, he's a great kid and a great student - and that's what's earned him the opportunity to play Division I football," Thomas said. "He's the catalyst to our team, and we love having him."

The University of Albany recruit enters the game with 1,129 rushing yards and 12 touchdowns, surpassing the 1,030 yards he gained during a fully healthy junior year.

More impressive, he's averaging better than 10 yards per carry - or, as Thomas puts it, "a touchdown every 10 times he touches the ball."

For Alston, it came down to staying focused and staying patient.

"I knew I wasn't going to come back until I was 100 percent, so I knew, when I came back, I was going to come back with a bang," he said. "But I think the whole team has been coming together as one.

"We always knew we had a championship team, but we had to learn that it wasn't going to be easy. We stepped it up, we worked even harder, and, eventually, we started clicking, and then we just went off."

Even with the team outscoring opponents by 196-54 over its six-game win streak, Salem is an underdog against Paulsboro.

Thomas called it an "honor" to play against Paulsboro, one of South Jersey's "most well-coached and best programs."

But it's also a golden opportunity.

"This is a chance for us to put Salem football on the map," he said. "This is the perfect stage for us to display what we're all about."

As for Alston, "I'm still waiting for him to have his ultimate performance," Thomas said.

That's a bold statement, considering Alston rushed for 210 yards and four touchdowns against Wildwood earlier this year and is fresh off a 161-yard performance in a semifinal win over Woodstown.

But it speaks to the role that Thomas expects his star running back to play on Saturday. It's a role Alston is embracing.

"Winning this game would be a dream come true," Alston said. "Me and [senior linebacker] Levi Shockley have been playing football together since we were little. We always said we want that title. Now we have a chance to get it in our last game playing together. That's all we're focused on right now."