As an assistant coach in Buford’s football program the past 16 years, Bryant Appling has been involved in his share of region championship games, whether in the literal or de facto sense.
So when his Class AAAAA No. 1 state-ranked Wolves (9-0, 4-0) travel to Athens to take on Clarke Central on Friday night at 7:30 with the winner claiming the Region 8-AAAAA title, it won’t be anything new for him, even though this will be his first championship game as a head coach.
For many of his players, however, it’s a somewhat different story.
“With a newer roster, everything is a first this year,” Appling said of the number of new starters or regular contributors getting a lot of playing time this year. “We’re trying to get them to understand that championship weeks don’t come around as often as you might think. Clarke Central has a tradition that is nothing to be scoffed at. I remember that going up to Death Valley was always a big deal, and (Friday is) going to be another great game.”
Indeed, Appling has been involved in more than one big game in Billy Henderson Stadium, a.k.a. Death Valley.
However, it is more than the winning tradition Clarke Central (6-3, 3-1) have built up over nearly 50 years, including 16 region championships and three state titles, that has Appling realizing that the Wolves will have to bring their A game.
The Gladiators have been quite productive of late, especially offensively behind a balanced attack led by quarterback Isaac Ward, who has thrown for 1,743 yards and 21 touchdowns against just four interceptions, receiver Jairus Mack (47-948, 13 TDs receiving) and running back O’Brien Barnett (165-947, 13 TDs).
“They’re athletics on both sides of the ball and they’ve got good size on both (offensive and defensive) lines,” Appling said of Clarke. “They’re kind of built like us. They run the football well and use all fields off their running game. Our region has some really good teams, and every game at this stage can go either way.”
Of course, Buford has been plenty stingy on the defense to help deal with Clarke’s offensive weapons, including such impact players like Tommy Beuglas (72 combined tackles and assists, 4 sacks), Nick Perry (45 tackles, 1 sack) and Aubrey Smith (46 tackles, 2 sacks), who have helped lead a unit that has allowed just 12.7 points per game and created 17 turnovers.
And with an offense that has accounted for 3,000 total yards and an avearage of 37.2 points per game, led by the running of Gabe Ervin and Elijah Turner, who have combined for 1,440 yards and 20 TDs, and the passing of Jarvis Evans Jr. (57-89-5, 1,075 yards, 13 TDs), the Wolves seem to be peaking at the right time.
“I’m excited about the way we played against Walnut Grove (in a 49-0 win) last week, and the second half of (a 30-7 win over) Loganville (two weeks earlier), Appling said. “Hopefully we’re hitting our stride, and our best ball is still ahead of us. The first five minutes is going to be be important, and we’ve definitely started fast the last couple of games.”