Buford at Cartersville
When: 7:30 Friday night
Where: Weinman Stadium, Cartersville
Coaches: Buford, Jess Simpson; Cartersville, Joey King
Records: Region 8-AAAA No. 1 Buford (13-0); Region 7-AAAA No. 1 Cartersville (12-1)
Key players: Buford, RB/LB Joshua Thomas (6-1, 210 Sr.); SS/PR/WR David Curry (6-1, 195 Sr.); TE Isaac Nauta (6-5, 240 Jr.). Cartersville, QB Trevor Lawrence (6-4, 180 Fr.); RB/LB Tiamon Pennymon (5-11, 210 Jr.); TE/LB Tyler Reed (6-2, 225 Jr.).
It’s been two years since the Buford Wolves played at Weinman Stadium. But they haven’t forgotten the standing-room-only crowd at Cartersville High and the atmosphere surrounding a 21-10 Buford win in the 2012 Class AAA semifinals.
“We all say that was the best environment we’ve all ever played in,” said Martin Mangram, now in his junior year as a Wolves running back and defensive back.
Buford senior David Curry, a safety, wide receiver, punter and punt returner this season, took it a step further in his reaction to the coin toss that determined third-ranked Cartersville would host this Friday’s Class AAAA semifinal contest.
“We’re really excited that we lost the coin toss because we love going to Cartersville,” said Curry, a Virginia commitment. “Two years ago, that environment was crazy, and we love it. So we’re going to love going down there and playing them in their place. It’s going to be a fun time.”
It will also be a meeting of programs that are no stranger to success.
No. 1 Buford (13-0) is making its eighth consecutive semifinal appearance — across three classifications — while seeking its seventh state championship in that span. The Wolves boast a 38-game winning streak. They’re in the midst of their 16th straight 10-win season and 15th consecutive 12-victory campaign among 24 overall 10-win seasons, according to the Georgia High School Football Historians Association.
Cartersville (12-1), meanwhile, hasn’t skipped a beat under first-time head coach Joey King, who took over after Frank Barden’s 18 years at the helm. Barden led the Purple Hurricanes to one of their two state championships, in 1999.
King, a former Carrollton offensive coordinator with state championship game experience, guided Cartersville to a Region 7-AAAA title and helped the Purple Hurricanes improve to 36-3 since the start of the 2012 season. This marks the first time Cartersville has won 10 games in three consecutive seasons since a four-year span from 1998-2001, according to GHSFHA.
The Purple Hurricanes reached this round by overcoming a 10-point fourth-quarter deficit to defeat Sandy Creek 35-31 last week in Cartersville. Sandy Creek was a state champion in three of the previous five seasons.
“I saw a lot of people really wanting a win, really wanting to get to the next round,” Mangram said of the Purple Hurricanes’ comeback.
A major reason for Cartersville’s continued success has been 6-foot-4, 180-pound freshman quarterback Trevor Lawrence, who has thrown for 2,908 yards, 26 touchdowns and six interceptions. His top receiver, with almost 1,000 yards, is 6-foot, 165-pound junior Terrius Callahan. Tiamon Pennymon and Kalin Heath are both approaching 1,000 yards rushing.
“They do a good job of spreading you out and attacking you at every point on the field,” Buford coach Jess Simpson said. “They force you to make tackles in space, which is the hardest thing to do in football.”
King said he knew from the time he saw one of Lawrence’s first throws in spring practice, as an eighth-grader moving up, that he had great potential. It’s come together for Cartersville, which suffered its only loss in a 27-26 setback at North Cobb in its second game of the year. The Purple Hurricanes are on an 11-game winning streak with Lawrence leading the offense.
“The guys around him have taken him under their wing and made him feel comfortable,” King said. “He’s a phenomenal talent and has done a really good job learning our system, making reads and executing our offense.”
Curry said Buford has seen film of Lawrence from throughout the season and called him “a great player” who has impressed the Wolves’ players and coaches.
“He’s a freshman, so we’re going to get after him with a lot of blitzes,” Curry said. “And we’re going to try to rattle his cage a little bit, play well in the secondary so we can get after him.”
Mangram said Cartersville is a team that feeds off emotion, which should be in full supply with another large crowd this Friday.
Buford has been without Xavier Gantt, the team’s leading rusher through 11 games, the past two playoff games after he suffered a hamstring injury, but Joshua Thomas has scored five of his 16 touchdowns in those two weeks and Evyn Cooper had 129 rushing yards in the first game Gantt missed. That dynamic doesn’t surprise King.
“They’ve got some great kids to work with,” King said. “They’re one of the best teams not just in Georgia, but probably in the Southeast. The thing that’s most impressive is how deep they are. One goes out and another steps in and looks just like him.”
On the other side of the ball, King said Buford has linebackers bigger than his offensive linemen. The coach pointed out that many teams haven’t even been on the goal line against Buford.
The Wolves’ defense has held opposing offenses to only 110.4 yards and 5.5 points per game.
“When you look and try to find a weakness, they really don’t have any,” King said.
King joined Curry in being thankful for the result of the coin toss late last Friday night.
“It’s going to be an exciting atmosphere,” King said. “I’m tickled to death to not have to go down there. We’ll certainly take every advantage we can get playing these guys.”
Buford will relish the stage, too.
“Hostility, we love it,” Curry said. “We love when the other team talks trash. It just pumps us up even more, so we’re going to be ready.”
A spot in the Dec. 13 state championship game in the Georgia Dome is on the line. The high stakes speak for themselves.
“It’s the whole reason we work so hard every day,” Mangram said. “This is what we’ve been wanting.”