Considering how far back the football programs at Buford and Warner Robins go back and each one’s level of success, it’s kind of surprising the two teams have never met before on the gridiron.
But when the Wolves (13-1) and Demons (13-1) finally square off Friday, it will be for the largest of stakes in the Georgia High School Association’s Class AAAAA state championship game, with a 4:30 p.m. kickoff at Georgia State Stadium in Atlanta.
The two teams boast a combined 56 region championships and 15 state titles over more than 130 years of competition between them, but it’s been a little while since each team has lifted a trophy atop the championship podium.
Buford has the more recent championship in five years ago in 2014, compared to 2004 for Warner Robins’ last title, though the Demons have been in the title game more recently, having finished as state runner-up the past two seasons, while the Wolves are making their first final appearance since 2016.
But that is the past. In the present, the two teams stand in something of an interesting contrast to each other, especially the two offenses.
Buford, of course, has used its deep power running game, paced early by Gabe Ervin Jr. (156-1,155, 12 TDs) and lately by sophomore Victor Venn (89-709, 8 TDs), who has picked up his pace in light of recent injuries to Evans and Elijah Turner (102-782, 13 TDs), plus a strong offensive line to dominate the line of scrimmage.
On the other hand, Warner Robins brings a similarly balanced team to the one the Wolves faced in the previous two rounds of the playoffs in wins at Carrollton and Jones County, if anything skewed a little more towards the air behind junior quarterback Jalen Addie (144-278, 2,297 yards, 23 TDs, 7 INTs; 97-571, 4 TDs rushing) and receiver Marcayll Jones (41-773, 2 TDs).
But the Demons are also able to move the ball on the ground, led by junior Jahlen Rutherford (185-1,290, 5 TDs) and senior James Smith (106-934, 1 TD), which poses a balanced attack that Buford coach Bryant Appling says poses as big a challenge as his Wolves have faced all season.
“They’re definitely balanced,” Appling said. “They want to run the ball first. They try to control everything by running the football, though they will spread you out. They’ll do that a little more than we will, but it’s definitely two storied programs with two rich traditions squaring off at 4:30 on Friday (afternoon). It’s going to be fun.”
If the Wolves are going to be able to deal with Warner Robins’ athleticism, they will have to use all their athletic tools.
On defense, that may mean being more of a speed team, whether it comes from a secondary that stifled sophomore sensation Carrollton quarterback Myles Morris to just 61 yards passing in the quarterfinals two weeks ago or a pass rush that swarmed under Jones County’s Hunter Costlow six times, including two and a half by Evan DiMaggio and two more by Carlton Holley, in last week’s semifinals.
“We came into the season knowing we weren’t going to be the biggest defense we’ve ever had,” Appling said. “But we were definitely tough and able to run. So hopefully that will show up (Friday), we’ll fill our gaps and we’ll leverage the ball and do what we’re supposed to do on Friday.”
Meanwhile, the Buford offense would like to not only dominate in yardage and breaking off a few chunk plays on the ground like they have the past two weeks, but also to control the ball and the clock like it did in last week’s semifinals, especially in the second half, when the Wolves not only allowed Jones County to have just three possessions in the final 24 minutes, including holding onto the ball for the final 8:51 of the game thanks to its punishing ground game.
And there is no doubt which pace the Wolves would prefer Friday against Warner Robins.
“We have a lot of respect for Warner Robins,” senior offensive lineman Malone VanGorder said. “They’re a really good football team and have really good talent. They’re really well coached. I think it’s going to be a pretty good battle in the trenches, a good war. But I think our coaches have prepared us for that all year, and I think we’ve had some games that have been like that — a war for four quarters.
“I think we’re ready for that. Our coaches have pushed us all year to be prepared for a moment like this.”
Since it’s been a few years since the Wolves have been in a moment like this, they are going into Friday’s game ready to embrace that moment.
And VanGorder’s fellow senior on the offensive line Seth McLaughlin is convinced that if they are to meet that moment to the best of their ability, it will be by working hard together.
“It’s been an incredible experience,” the Alabama commit said. “The team is so together this year. We’ve all got each others’ backs. It’s been a special accomplishment to get back (to the championship game). It’s been two years. It’s just back to (being) Buford.”