Buford coach Jess Simpson knows a thing or two about state championships and title-winning teams. After all, he's coached seven squads that won it all for the Wolves.
On Friday afternoon in Atlanta -- in a game broadcast live on WDUN AM 550 -- Simpson hopes to help guide Buford to its 12th state crown and 11th since 2001. And should the Wolves grab the ring they will most definitely have earned it.
The 2016 Buford team has faced down more adversity than perhaps any Wolves squad in recent memory, overcoming injuries and a tortuous playoff slate littered with Region 7-AAAAA foes that pushed Buford to the brink. And there is one more 7-AAAAA behemoth standing in the way, as Rome guns for its first state crown against Buford in the Dome.
With that in mind, AccessWDUN sports and Friday Game Night editor Morgan Lee caught up with Simpson to discuss his team's run to its 10th straight state title game, the obstacles it has overcome and just what it's like to step out on that Georgia Dome turf in the moments before kickoff.
QUESTION: Talking to some of your players they mentioned how hungry they were to get to the Dome and wash the taste of last year's championship game defeat from their mouths and how much of a motivating factor that is for them. As a coaching staff do you talk about that stuff at all or is that just something that they use for themselves?
ANSWER: I don't think it's something we've talked about in a long, long time. Certainly when you lose the last game of the season that was a bitter pill, and that's part of it. You win some, you lose some. But I do know for our seniors this is exciting. I think our team Friday night after that (28-16 semifinal defeat of Kell) was probably as excited as I've seen them in a long time. They really enjoyed that win and just have the opportunity to get one more shot at this deal.
Q: It was obvious in the postgame celebration that you and the team were emotional. Is that because it's been a four-quarter fight in the last two games?
A: That's probably a little bit of it. Part of it is this team's just had a ton of adversity all year long with setbacks and injuries, and every week it seems like it's something different. We have obviously had some hard-fought battles, and this group's probably been doubted, and they feel like they have something to prove. But it was fun just to see them enjoy winning.
Q: We talked about adversity earlier, and you have mentioned previously how many injuries you have been through. Obviously, you're not going to use that as a crutch, but just explain how much y'all have had to shuffle your line-up and change things due to injury.
A: I always tell our kids: Nobody cares. At the end of the day we're playing, and you're wearing the gold helmet, and there's a standard of performance and hopefully we can play to that. We've had a bunch (of injuries), but that's football and maybe a little more this year than in other years. But certainly that's just part of it. And you've got to play through it. They've done a really good job. It is coachspeak of next man in, but a two becomes a one and a three becomes a two, and it's a battle of back-ups. And our kids have bought into that and they've really done a good job, and I tip my hat to them.
Q: You've gotten some players back for the playoffs. How healthy are you right now? Do you feel like you're beginning to peak?
A: We've had some moments where we've played really well in all three phases of the game. We've had some moments where the defense had to pick up the offense or vice-versa and offense picking up the 'D,' or we made a mistake here in special teams or there. So we've had to do it a lot of different ways the last month but that's OK. I told those guys the other night, the strength of this team is the team. And this has been a fun team to coach.
Q: The seniors on this team have been through a lot and seen a lot. You've played some really tough teams in their four years. The lessons of losing in the Dome last year, the lessons of playing (Class AAAAAAA finalist) Roswell this year -- how much does that factor in this week?
A: Any time you lose -- most of the time you learn more from a loss than you can a win. And certainly last year, losing to Cartersville was tough, and you learn a lot from that. Playing Roswell early in the year -- and I think everybody in the state understands how good they are -- it was good for us. It was a great measuring stick. And we learned a lot about who we were at the time and what we needed to do to get to this point to have a chance. Credit to our kids and our assistant coaches; I think we've gotten better all year long.
Q: How much has this team grown this season? And do you feel like you've maintained a consistent growth because of that adversity?
A: This group has grown tremendously: the seniors, from a leadership standpoint, to the young guys learning how to follow, to how we've grown in different phases of the game or different position groups -- how much better they've gotten over the course of the year. As a coach that's what's fun: seeing kids grow up and seeing the challenges and adversities and the grind of football play a little part in their life of shaping them and part of their character.
Q: You've already beaten two teams from Region 7-AAAAA; you've got a third coming up this Friday. How does Rome compare to the Carrollton and Kell teams you've just played -- because they all beat each other during the regular season -- so they must be fairly comparable?
A: They are and I probably believe that Rome was the best of the three. And Kell played really good the night that they beat Rome. But, man, when you look at the size, strength and length, speed that they have -- the physicality that they play with -- they're very deserving of being in the state championship game, and they're going to give us all we can handle.
Q: We had a chance to talk with Carrollton's and Kell's coaches, and they believe that the key match-up between you guys will come between your offensive line and Rome's defensive line. Do you feel similar?
A: I think the key is both lines of scrimmage -- whether it's our 'O'-line versus their 'D'-line or their offensive line against our defensive line. Rome is a big, strong, physical, well-coached group. So it's going to be a battle. And if you do what you're supposed to do it's backs making plays or us on the second level of defense making tackles. Obviously if one line of scrimmage dominates it can negate the perimeter guys, and our kids understand that about football. It starts up front, and that's how football is, and that's how football will always be. So our guys know that they're going to be in a battle, and this is probably going to be the biggest challenge they've faced all year.
Q: You are so used to playing in the Georgia Dome; does it ever get old? What's it like to step out on that turf for the first time right before each championship game?
A: We feel so blessed to have gotten to do it every year. And it never gets old. It's so much fun to know that you got your team and your kids, and you get to walk out there and compete and represent your community and your team, and it's just a lot of fun. It's a rush for a high school kid, a high school coach to have all your fans down there right before Christmas. It's a neat experience for everybody.
Q: How confident, how optimistic do you feel about this group getting down there and finishing out with a win?
A: I always stay in the moment. I'm confident that we need to have a great Tuesday practice, and our kids need to be locked in. Every Friday night's a final exam and knowledge equals speed. And the process and the preparation before the game this Friday is a big, big deal. I think confidence is created by how you prepare, and confidence is derived from what you've accomplished in the past -- and certainly we can lean into that a little bit. But, more importantly, we need to lean into our work and our preparation this week.
-- NOTE: Buford will kick off against Rome at approximately 4:30 p.m. Friday in Atlanta. Tune in to WDUN AM 550 for complete game coverage, and then check out AccessWDUN's Friday Game Night page for complete postgame coverage from the Georgia Dome, including stories, photos and video highlights.