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Tuesday August 11th, 2020 5:13AM

Q&A with Wolves' Appling, Ware County's Strickland

By Jeff Hart Sports Reporter

Almost no Georgia high school football fans would put the Buford football program in the category as one that needs to make a statement. The Wolves have won 16 region titles since 2001, advanced to the quarterfinals or better for 19 consecutive campaigns, and brought home 10 state title trophies.

But after a pair of disappointing playoff finishes over the last two seasons, that is exactly where the Wolves (10-1) find themselves as they head to Waycross to take on Ware County Friday night in the second round of the Class 5A playoffs. In fact, the Gators (8-3) are also a program looking to make a statement of their own after not getting out of the second round each of the last three seasons.

Ware County has won nine region titles since 2003, advanced to the quarterfinals or better six times, and played for state titles twice. So, something will have to give at Memorial Stadium as the two giants look to continue their 2019 runs in the state playoffs.

However, both teams also sport new head coaches. The Gators’ Jason Strickland is in his first season and guided them to their first region title since 2016. Buford is being led by former longtime assistant Bryant Appling, who took over this season from John Ford after Buford saw its streak of semifinal appearances end at 11 straight seasons. That came one year after their state championship game appearances ended at 10 straight.

Appling was promoted in large part to get the Wolves back onto the biggest stage.

AccessWDUN caught up with both Appling and Strickland as they prepare for their second round matchup.

Buford came into the playoffs after a rare loss to Clarke Central to end the season and finish second in Region 8-5A. They appeared mad as they hammered Decatur 43-6 last week in the first round. They led 43-0 less than 16 minutes into the game.

Question: Coach Appling, y’all seemed to come out with a renewed sense of focus last week against Decatur. How much did the Clarke Central loss play into that?

Answer: I would say it played into it a good amount. Every once in a while you need a wake up call as a program and I think our focus has been different since that game.

Question: That also was your first playoff win as coach. There is pressure for sure at Buford so that must have felt nice to get that out of the way. Has that helped you be able to relax a little more and maybe sparked some new energy for the playoffs?

Answer: Any ‘first’ as a new coach is special, and I am glad we did get that first (playoff win) out of the way. It has not let me relax anymore, though, because we are all playing one week seasons now and if you relax you will be packing up your stuff on (a) Monday.

Question: Ware County has a solid playoff history, including one trip to the state finals in 2012 where the Gators lost to Gainesville. They are almost as unbeatable at home (14-1) in the playoffs just as y’all are. How important is being able to play at home in the playoffs? What is y’alls typical approach to road playoff games in terms of preparation?

Answer: Home-field advantage is definitely big in any game or sport. The comfort level of doing your regular routine, not having to get on the bus, not worrying about all the uncertainties of a different venue does help. As far as road games, you would hope to have a similar type game during the regular season so players and coaches have experienced a similar Friday routine. We didn’t get the opportunity to travel any further than an hour and a half for a game this season so our itinerary and approach to this one will be different. In the past we have played playoff games in Charlton County and Fitzgerald so there are enough people in the program that remember how those days and trips worked to where we hopefully can minimize any issues before they appear.

Question: What do you see as the keys to this game? Offensively? Defensively? Intangibles?

Answer: Offensively, first and foremost running the ball, dictating the pace of the game with the ball on the ground, and taking advantage of the opportunities that they give us in the air. Also, controlling the clock and keeping the ball out of harms way. Defensively, we have to be gap sound in their run game and take care of their very athletic quarterback. They are young at receiver but they are still one of the most athletic and physical receiver groups that we have seen this year. A turnover or two would help a bunch. As far as intangibles, we have been preaching to our kids about the atmosphere and the tradition at Ware County and that whatever happens, before or during the game, the way we respond will determine how things go for us on Friday. The bottom line is we are in control of our own destiny because we get the opportunity to play, and if we go out there and play fast and physical like we did last week, we will have a chance. That’s all you can ask for this time of year.

 

Ware County parted ways with coach Franklin Stephens after the 2018 season following five seasons with just one playoff run past the second round. Coach Strickland said he and his staff understand the pressures that come with taking over a tradition-rich program and they have embraced them as they try and get the Gators back on top.

Question: Coach Strickland, the Gators have a rich playoff history, including a state championship game berth in 2012. However, the region title was the first for the program since 2016 and they haven’t gotten out of the second round since 2015. What has been the difference this year with this group as y'all try to get back to state-wide prominence?

Answer: This is our first season at Ware County, so it’s hard for me to say what the issues were with not getting out of the second round the last couple of years. One of the things I would say would simply be the opponent. In 2017, Ware County matched up with No. 3 Stockbridge and last year it was [eventual state runner-up] Warner Robins. I think there have been some depth issues the last few years, and our goal in Year 1 has been to re-energize the program and community. Like anything it is not an overnight process, but we are proud of the progress from Day 1 to now. We have some very talented young men on the roster, but we are still very young and inexperienced in a lot of key positions. While there are times on Friday nights we look special, there are other times that youth and inexperience will show up. Our biggest goal this season is to remind our guys to have fun playing this game, and when we make a mistake, learn how to move on from it. Right now, they are doing that.

Question: Y'all are almost unbeatable at home (14-1) in the playoffs all-time. How important is being able to play at home in the playoffs? What is y’alls typical approach to home playoff games in terms of preparation?

Answer: I think home field advantage is a factor in the playoffs, but I think the fan base and venue have a lot to do with how big of an advantage it can be. With that being said, the fan base and the stadium we get to play in are as good as it gets. Our community loves this football program; our guys understand what they mean to this community and what they represent. We don't do very much differently in the playoffs than in the regular season. We try not to make games bigger than what they are, and we try to keep reminding our guys to enjoy the moment.

Question: What do you see as the keys to this game? Offensively? Defensively? Intangibles?

Answer: As always turnovers will play a major factor. People show me stats about things that affect the outcome of games all the time, but I still think turnovers are the No. 1 thing. We have to be able to protect the football, and somehow we have to be able to get a few from Buford. The next thing will be how well each team plays along the line of scrimmage. This will be a bit of a throwback football game. Both teams like to run the football, and the team that can gain control of the line of scrimmage is going to have the most success. Buford has a long history of making deep playoff runs, and through that time have had to win games in a lot of different ways. We are playing at home, and this is probably the longest road trip Buford has had to make in several years. It's going to be a great environment and we are excited about the opportunity to play one of the state's premier programs. Hopefully we can make it live up to the excitement.

BUFORD at WARE COUNTY
-- WHEN: 7:30 p.m. 
-- WHERE: Memorial Stadium, Waycross
-- BUFORD (10-1): No. 2 seed Region 8-5A; defeated Decatur 43-6 last week in the first round
-- WARE COUNTY (8-3): No. 1 seed Region 2-5A; defeated Ola 35-22 last week in the first round
-- NOTABLE: First-ever meeting between the two schools. ... Two programs with a rich playoff history. And something will probably give in this one ... The Gators are making their 18th straight playoff appearance and have won 9 region titles in that span. From 2007 to last season, the Gators advanced to the quarterfinals or better seven times, including a Class 4A championship game berth in 2012 against Gainesville and Deshaun Watson [a 49-13 Red Elephants win]. However, they have not gotten out of the second round since 2016. ... The Wolves extended their playoff streak to 21 consecutive seasons and they have made the quarterfinals or better 19 straight times, including winning 10 state titles. ... Ware County is nearly unbeatable at home in the playoffs over the past decade. The Gators have won 7 straight home playoff games and is 14-1 at Memorial Stadium since their run to the 2012 championship game. Their last home playoff loss came to Mays in 2014, 21-18. ... Buford is just 4-2 in its last 6 true road games, including a 31-28 loss to Clarke Central two weeks ago. ... On paper the Wolves look like a heavy favorite. They are 4th in offense (408, 37.0 ppg) and 8th in defense (151, 13.7 ppg) while Ware County is just 22nd in offense (296, 26.9 ppg) and 19th in defense (219, 19.9 ppg) in Class 5A. ... Gabe Ervin leads Buford with 941 yards rushing. ... So. QB Thomas Castellanos is putting up a big season for the Gators with 966 yards rushing 866 yards passing.
-- NEXT: Winner gets Veterans-Carrollton winner in the quarterfinal round

  • Associated Categories: Sports, High School Sports, Friday Game Night
  • Associated Tags: High school football, Buford football
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Almost no Georgia high school football fans would put the Buford football program in the category as one that needs to make a statement. But after a pair of disappointing playoff finishes over the last two seasons, that is exactly where the Wolves find themselves as they head to Waycross to take on Ware County Friday night in the second round of the Class 5A playoffs...
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