BUFORD — Buford’s success is cultivated way before the Friday night lights are flipped on at Tom Riden Stadium.
It’s ingrained in the minds and bodies of future and current Buford Wolves from the time they hit the Gwinnett Football Youth League to the trophy lined hallways of Buford High School. It’s the Buford Way.
And when you actually dig around the Buford Athletic Complex just off Buford Drive, you’ll find it’s actually a way of life.
Senior offensive lineman and recent Army commit Jacob Smith described it best.
“What really sets us apart from everyone else is the relationships that are built,” he said. “The desire for one player to want to go play for another. Every team you look at this late in the playoffs, they’ve all talent, hard work and physicality to them, but there’s just that element of Buford – the best way I can put it -- that just separates us from the rest ... that you just can’t prepare for because it doesn’t matter who we are playing against, it doesn’t matter what we do, it’s who we’re doing it together with every year. It’s those relationships that the guys have on the field together to want to fight even harder than someone normally could and probably would.”
The Wolves have executed the Buford Way to almost perfection in writing their first chapter in the Class 6A playoffs. After losing their first regular-season game against North Cobb, the Wolves found the way, finishing with eight straight wins and tops in offensive and defensive production. Now, they’ve cruised through the first three rounds of the playoffs averaging 44 points per game while allowing just 12 ppg.
But they’ll face the state’s winningest program, Valdosta, on Friday at Tom Riden Stadium for a trip to the state championship game after Christmas. Kickoff is set for 7:30 p.m. and can be heard live on AM 550 WDUN.
“We just take it as another time to get better, to go 1-0,” Senior defensive end Caden Williams said. “We’re going to come in fight, claw, and do whatever we need to come out with a win this time. We’re going to be ready for them.”
As players prepped for indoor practice earlier this week, the hype on the outside hadn’t made its way inside. It was all business as usual.
Buford coach Bryant Appling, checking off his pre-practice to-do list along with his everyday duties before practice, said they are preparing for this game just as any other semifinal matchup.
“It’s going to be big. A lot of people on the outside looking in are making it bigger than it probably should be,” Appling said. “It’s a semifinal game – it’s as big as our one last year or any other year. It’s the first time we played Valdosta and all the history they have and all the history that we have [goes along with it.] I’m pretty sure our players are practicing and coaches are coaching just like it's any other semifinal game. We’re not doing anything extraordinarily different than any other year in this situation.”
But the hype can’t be turned down. It’s there. It’s a huge game between two of the state’s most prolific and historic programs. Valdosta (22) and Buford (12) have a combined 34 state championships and 66 region titles.
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Since 2000, however, the Wolves have rolled into the semifinals for the 12th time in 14 seasons and 18th time in 21 seasons, including 11 state championships across five different classifications. It is just the 4th semifinals for the Wildcats since 2000 and one state title in 2016.
While it's true every player on the Buford roster is hyped for this matchup, it's just another day at the office with the same goal: win and move on to the next one.
“Everyone is hyped to play this game, but we’re treating it as a regular normal game,” Senior defensive back Amari Wansley said. “It’s going to be cold Friday night, so we’ve got to be able to stay warm, be able to focus and lock in when we’re on the field and come out with a victory.”