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Buford rallies past Washington County to win state championship, 35-19

Wolves break state's single-season scoring record en route to 10th title

POSTED: December 14, 2013 12:37 a.m.
Nat Gurley/The Times

Buford wide receiver Austin Smith prevents Washington tight end D.J. Sanders from catch a pass in the first half of the Class AAA state championship game on Friday at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta.

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ATLANTA — It took a little fine-tuning and a halftime rally, but Buford finished its 2013 season in typical fashion.

State champion.

The Wolves shrugged off early struggles with a monster second half that propelled them to their second straight Class AAA title with a 35-19 win over Washington County on Friday in the Georgia Dome.

Buford (15-0) rebounded from a 13-0 deficit with the help of a 43-yard touchdown pass from Taylor Mitchell to Issac Nauta just 13 seconds before halftime. With a little momentum built from the late score, the Wolves unloaded four more touchdowns in the second half en route to their ninth state championship in the past 13 years.

Truly a high a school football dynasty.

“This is fun,” said Buford coach Jess Simpson, who won his sixth state title in seven finals appearances. “Doing it when you’re behind and coming back when you’re down 13-0 is a pretty big deal at this stage.”

The victory capped off one of the most dominant seasons by a team in Georgia high school football history, especially for Buford’s offense. The Wolves wrapped up the season with a state-record 707 points, a feat they achieved on Thomas Wilson’s 28-yard touchdown run early in the third quarter. That score also gave them their first lead of the game.

Defensively, Buford took previously unbeaten Washington County (13-1), which piled up more than 4,000 yards on the ground this season, and held it to a mere 42 yards on 26 carries.

“That’s who they are, and that’s what they do,” Simpson said. “I’m really proud of that front seven and how we handled them. If you had told me before the game we were going to make them throw it, I would’ve told you we had a chance to win.”

And to think, Buford looked like the disadvantaged team in the early stages of the game.

The Wolves fumbled the ball on their first possession of the game and missed a 47-yard field goal in a scoreless first quarter they’d like to forget.

Then Washington County made things even tougher on the first play of the second quarter, when Golden Hawks quarterback A.J. Gray hit D.J. Sanders for a 41-yard touchdown pass.

Buford was already thrown off guard by allowing only its seventh passing touchdown of the season.

Three minutes later, it got worse.

Forced to punt after an unsuccessful possession, the Wolves allowed an 86-yard return for a touchdown by Melvin Hill, giving Washington County a stunning 13-0 lead and plenty of time to expand their advantage.

Buford didn’t cave under the pressure, but instead demonstrated the perseverance that has made the Wolves a postseason powerhouse over the past decade.

They took possession with 2:36 remaining and spanned 75 yards over the next two minutes, finding the end zone on Mitchell’s touchdown pass to Nauta (three catches, 82 yards) only 13 seconds before the clock expired.

Buford still trailed 13-7, but the spark the Wolves were desperately looking for was ignited.

“It was huge — we really struggled at the beginning of the game,” Mitchell said. “We turned the ball over early, and it was important to get some momentum going into the locker room.”

The touchdown was Mitchell’s second-longest pass of the game, highlighting a 6-for-11, 126-yard performance for the senior.

Washington County nearly erased Buford’s surging confidence on a 57-yard completion from Gray to Sanders on the opening drive of the third quarter, a strike that would’ve put the Golden Hawks in the Wolves’ red zone. But a holding call negated the massive play, giving Buford solid field position on the ensuing punt.

It ended up being the perfect opportunity for the Wolves to capitalize on their opponent’s mistakes. On the first play of the drive, Wilson plowed through a cast of Washington County defenders on his way to the end zone to give his team its first lead of the night, 14-13.

“The coaches wanted us to just come in here and execute the plan,” Wilson said. “Just run it down their throats, and after four quarters they’ll get tired.”

Wilson added another touchdown in the fourth quarter, and finished with a team-high 118 yards on 14 carries in his final high school game. He’ll trade his Buford uniform for Missouri’s next season.

“He makes plays on special teams, makes plays on defense and makes plays on offense,” Simpson said. “If we’ve ever had a player do more in all three phases, I can’t think of him right now.”

Joshua Thomas matched Wilson’s scoring output with a pair of fourth-quarter touchdowns, including an 18-yard run on the first play of the fourth that put the Wolves up 21-13.

He added another score with 1:40 left to play and finished the game with 94 yards on 15 carries.

Washington County’s last legitimate threat was a 64-yard touchdown pass from Gray to Sanders with 6:40 remaining. A missed PAT put the Golden Hawks behind 28-19, but Thomas’ second touchdown secured the Buford victory.

“For two weeks in a row, the kids showed a lot of poise and a lot of confidence,” Simpson said, citing the Wolves’ 24-14 victory against Callaway in last week’s semifinals that also required a second-half rally.

“It was a special second half. It’s crazy how they’ve played the last two weeks.”

Gray was 16 of 30 passing with 231 yards for Washington County. Sanders caught eight passes for 169 yards.

“We were just outmanned,” Washington County coach Joel Ingram said. “They fought their ever-living tails off. I’m not disappointed in them.

“We were giving up 150 pounds of man at some spots. We did the best with what we had.”



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