Thursday May 26th, 2016 2:33PM

Wolves' perseverance serving Buford's charge back to the Dome (Video)

By Morgan Lee Sports Editor
Adversity is relative.

Every team that has ever competed at any level has faced adversity. And those that reach championship games inevitably persevere through those trials and setbacks.

Yet few championship-caliber teams have faced the tribulations of Buford in 2012.

The Wolves have not only successfully navigated the typical pitfalls that beset most teams, they have also endured true tragedy.

Over the last 12 months, 30-year-old Buford assistant coach Ryan Daniel and 16-year-old student Adam Smith each passed away suddenly, while former Wolves standout and Air Force Academy tight end Devin Durden succumbed to injuries following a motorcycle accident.

The weight of those occurrences made the loss of 21 starters from 2011's Class AA runner-up squad and the forfeiture of two early-season victories for briefly fielding an ineligible player pale in significance. And yet Buford's players and coaches battled on through each hardship, growing closer in the process and leaning on a devoted community, whose solidarity provided an emotional bedrock for school and team.

Earlier this week, Access North sports editor Morgan Lee caught up with members of the Wolves program to talk about their charge back to the Georgia Dome and the challenge that lies ahead on Friday. To watch a video feature on Buford's Class AAA title showdown, simply click "play" below.

Preview: AAA State Championship Buford vs St Pius X from WDUN TV on Vimeo.

"It's been tough," Wolves coach Jess Simpson said. "The forfeits were unfortunate. But the losses we've had have been almost catastrophic. You go, 'why God?' and try to make sense of it. It's hard to do that. But watching these kids and seeing the way they've been resilient and fought through it, come together... Really the whole Buford community has been incredible. It's been a special year because we talk a lot about family here and that this is a neat place. And I think it's even more close-knit than I thought it was, and I've been here a long time."

A former assistant who took charge of the program in 2005, Simpson will lead the Wolves into their sixth straight state title game showdown on Friday when they travel to Atlanta to face St. Pius X at 5:30 p.m. in the Georgia Dome. Should they claim victory it would prove the Wolves' eighth state crown in 12 seasons.

COMING UP: On Thursday, we'll look at Gainesville's Class AAAAA title showdown with Ware County. ... On Friday we'll preview Jefferson's battle with Calhoun. ... ALSO on Friday we'll present a special video review of Buford, Gainesville and Jefferson's MARCH TO THE DOME.

And while the healing process for school and community is still very much underway, Wolves players say they are determined to make the most of the time given to them.

"We lost coach Daniel, then Adam, then Devin... It's like, OK you never when your time comes, so you've got to grab on and make the most of it," senior fullback/linebacker Deione Bledson said. "It's brought our team closer together then we ever thought we'd be and now we get to play for a state championship."

Senior running back Dontravious Wilson says it is a testament to his teammates' determination that they find themselves back in Atlanta and sizing up another crown.

"Right now we're excited, anxious to play," said the senior running back, who leads the team with 1,137 yards rushing and 14 touchdowns. "We've been through a lot and just keep kicking and fighting. It's brought us closer. When times got harder we didn't tap out. We relied on each other. We tried to stick together and fight through it."

That perseverance, allied with a can-do attitude from a team that entered the campaign knowing that it faced many questions on the field has made for a memories aplenty for all involved with Buford football.

"It's been extremely rewarding," Simpson said. "It's been fun to watch them grow up and fight through this adversity. The last two weeks, being behind at halftime. There's so many chances guys could have thrown their hands up this fall. But they pride themselves on being a stubborn group that just wouldn't give in, wouldn't give up."

That refusal to yield, combined with a group that featured plenty of talent -- if somewhat untested as starters and leaders -- to field a team that has improved tremendously through the course of the campaign.

"We've grown a lot. At the beginning of the season I didn't know we'd come this far," Wilson said. "I knew we'd be good, but I didn't know how good. But I believe in all my teammates and trust in the coaches, and we're feeling pretty good right now."

After a trying year, it is a sentiment -- and performance level -- that the Wolves have worked hard to capture.

"As a coach or as a fan you could watch the first few games of the year and watch us now and we don't even look like the same bunch," Simpson said. "We've done a few different things, and we've learned as a group. We've also had a bunch of guys step up and have to play due to injuries this season. And it's one of those years where even our old guys are young (in terms of starting experience). But it's kind of like building a house. You lay a foundation and get to see it come up and see a finished product. That's been most rewarding."

On Friday, it is doubtless that the entire Buford community will show up to support that finished product and bask in its comfort and unity.

"(Playing in the Dome) never gets old," Bledson said. "It's a great reward for us after all the things we've been through."

-- CHAMPIONSHIP NOTES: Expect a fast-running clock between two teams that will run the ball a lot. The Wolves base out of the "I" and will go with their power ground game, led by Dontravious Wilson (1,137 yards rushing, 14 TDs despite missing a number of games through injury. St. Pius bases out of the triple option, with some wing-T concepts thrown in. The Golden Lions lean on fullback Ryan Braswell (1,531 yards rushing, 30 TDs). Yet both teams are far from one-man shows, with the Wolves also utilizing Zavior Hoxie (738 yards rushing, 7 TDs), Joshua Thomas (420 yards rushing, 7 TDs) and Thomas Wilson (350 yards rushing, 3 TDs), and Pius rushing the ball often through quarterback Jack Spear (934 yards rushing, 5 TDs; 757 yards passing, 8 TDs) and halfback Branden Mitchell (843 yards rushing, 7 TDs). ... Both teams feature stingy defenses, with the Golden Lions allowing 13.8 points per game. The Wolves have been downright ridiculous, yielding just 7.5 points and 175.1 yards per game. ... Bufor will rotate two capable quarterbacks in Montgomery VanGorder (753 yards passing, 11 TDs) and Taylor Mitchell (842 yards passing, 7 TDs, 1 interception).

-- WHAT: Class AAA football championship
-- WHEN: 5:30 p.m. Friday
-- WHERE: Georgia Dome, Atlanta
-- RADIO: 550 AM
-- BUFORD (11-3, No. 2 seed Region 7-AAA): Defeated Cartersville 21-10 in the semifinals
-- ST. PIUS (12-2, No. 1 seed Region 6-AAA): Defeated North Hall 31-6 in the semifinals
-- HISTORY: The two teams have not played since 1985, splitting contests in back-to-back seasons. They are the only prior meetings between the programs.
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