The Buford football team’s challenging playoff journey of road games — a product of its late-season stumble — reaches its conclusion this week.
A victory Friday night at Jones County in the Class AAAAA semifinals means the long drives are over, and the only game left is a short trip to Georgia State for the state championship game. The game at Jones County is the third straight away from Buford’s Tom Riden Stadium, which was a new experience for players who have grown accustomed to a No. 1 seed and a run of home games in the playoffs.
That path was cut off by a Game 10 upset against Clarke Central, forcing the Wolves (12-1) into long bus rides. They refocused after the loss, embraced the challenge and posted back-to-back road wins over Ware County and top-ranked Carrollton.
“It’s been different,” Buford head coach Bryant Appling said. “It’s different for the kids more than the coaches. There are probably five or six coaches on staff that had to do the road warrior mentality before. In ’09, we had to go to Jefferson (in the second round) and to Fitzgerald in the semifinals that year. In 2012, we had to forfeit the two (region) games and had to go to North Oconee, Carver-Columbus and Cartersville in the semifinals. We’ve done that before and we know it can be done. A lot of times when you get kids out of their comfort zone, they let things affect them and their thought process.
“But our kids have done well. They’ve done a good job of handling the adversity and being in a different frame of mind.”
Both the 2009 and 2012 teams followed their road-heavy playoff path with state championships. This team could do the same if it plays like it has in recent weeks.
“It’s actually been good (to go on the road),” running back Gabe Ervin said. “I feel like since we’ve been on the road we are more ready. We want to win. We want it more than the other team. The loss to Clarke Central really gave us a wake-up call for the playoffs. We knew we had work to do.”
Buford’s final road test is Jones County (12-1), which also suffered its only in the regular-season finale, 44-14 to Stockbridge. The Greyhounds are led by a new head coach, Mike Chastain, who took his previous team, Warner Robins, to the past two state championship games.
Jones quarterback Hunter Costlow is pushing the 3,000-yard mark on the season and his top two targets are playmaking wideouts Jontavis Robertson and Maleek Wooten. The offense runs effectively, too, with an 1,000-yard rusher in Andrew Carner.
Jones defeated another Region 8-AAAAA team in the second round — 17-6 over Cedar Shoals. By comparison, Buford beat Cedar Shoals 31-13.
“They’re a well-coached football team,” Appling said. “They do a lot of things well on both sides of the ball. They stop the run. They stop the pass. They run the ball. I’m pretty sure they’d rather throw it because they’re really good at that. But they do like to run the ball, too, with a big offensive line.”
Buford enters with the momentum of the road playoff wins, including a big one last week against fellow state title favorite Carrollton. Sophomore Victor Venn stepped up at running back because of injuries, and rushed 34 times for 235 yards.
The game came down to Buford converting a fake punt and piecing together a game-winning drive capped by Hayden Olsen’s game-winning field goal as time expired.
“At any point this year, when we were down 14-0 to Archer, when Milton starting making a comeback, our kids haven’t blinked,” Appling said. “They haven’t got that woe is me reaction. They’re showing some real toughness and grit right now.”