Tom Riden Stadium has been good to Jess Simpson and Buford in the last 12 years, to say the very least.
The No. 2 Wolves, who clash with No. 6 Kell for the very first time tonight in the Class AAAAA semifinal, have not lost a home playoff game in 10 years, marking 30 consecutive postseason wins under their lights since a 21-7 state quarterfinal loss to Charlton County on Dec. 1, 2006.
Their track record since then has been near impeccable, winning seven of their 11 total state titles in that reign.
The man who has been the constant presence down that stretch added another building block to his legacy following Friday night’s quarterfinal victory. But of course, Simpson is not about to let it get to his head.
“We’ve certainly been here many times before, but we don’t take it for granted, getting to play at home. These seniors kind of know this is the last time they’ll play at Tom Riden Stadium, it’s kind of bittersweet,” said Simpson, who is 163-11 since taking over the program in 2005.
It’s simply an environment unlike any other. Win or lose, this will be an unforgettable experience for senior defensive end Zack Waters.
“It’s honestly a blessing, to have the whole community behind you, the support for every home game that we have,” Waters said. “It’s gonna be really emotional because it’s my last opportunity to play there for the rest of my career.”
Last week’s quarterfinal was probably one of the most entertaining nights for the 12th-year head coach. Waters returned from his two-week absence to assist the defense in stopping Carrollton when it mattered most in a 34-27 victory.
Despite a late fumble recovery in Buford territory, Carrollton was unable to deliver in the final minute, and the Wolves held strong to the final buzzer.
“In ‘03, we added the visitors side to the stadium, and I think it was the largest crowd we’ve had on that side — at least the second largest,” Simpson said of Carrollton’s fan base. “It was a lot of fun. We feel like we beat a really good football team, and I think everybody got their money’s worth.”
A win on Friday night puts Buford in the championship game with either Stockbridge or Rome next Friday at the Georgia Dome, a place that has become a second home to the Wolves for the previous nine seasons.
Kell, though it’s 89-22 in nine seasons under Derek Cook, only wishes it could say the same.
It’s been a long trek for the Longhorns since losing a three-way tiebreak to Rome and Carrollton for the No. 1 seed. They posted wins at Southwest Dekalb (Atlanta), Starr’s Mill (Fayetteville) and Woodland (Stockbridge) for the first three rounds, logging up to 307 miles round trip en route to just their second semifinal appearance in 14 seasons.
Simpson is not surprised.
“You gotta tip your hat to them, going on the road — this will be four weeks in a row. Certainly, when we got the brackets, all our staff definitely thought they would come out of the bottom or had a really good chance to,” Simpson said.
Buford’s victory last week only adds to its credibility, as Carrollton handed Kell one of its two losses during the regular season. The Wolves’ quarterfinal against the No. 3 Trojans was also their closest margin of victory since Jefferson Davis (Montgomery, Ala.) in Week 3.
“Coach Cook and his staff has done a great job and they have a really good program,” Simpson added. “They come out of the toughest 5A region in the state, along with Carrollton and Rome. There’s probably no argument amongst coaches around the state. Obviously we’ve had to play Carrollton, and it was a very physical game. We obviously know what we’re in for (tonight).”
Finding flaws in your opponent can be a trying task at this point in the season, and Simpson can’t seem to find any in a senior-studded group like Kell. The Longhorns are a sound unit in all three phases, beginning with a balanced attack headlined by dual-threat quarterback John Lampley, followed by a running back tandem that includes 1,000-yard rusher Josiah Futral (1,105 yards, 9 touchdowns).
The Wolves will be tasked with slowing down Futral, who has yet to tire since a 221-yard, two touchdown outing in the opening round. For the postseason, he has 481 yards and four scores.
The Longhorns bring a slew of playmakers on defense, including sack leader Ismail Dabdoub, Solon page III (161 tackles, 12 TFL) and defensive back Jared Hill (four interceptions). The front seven has 35 sacks for the season, 10 by Dabdoub.
“They certainly are going to give you a lot of different looks, and you know, very attacking and penetrating up front,” Simpson added.
The Wolves are no slouches either, only giving up 74.6 rushing yards and 14.2 points a game this year. Running backs Anthony Grant (1,382 yards, 23 TD) and Christian Turner (942 yards, 16 TD) as well as quarterback Mic Roof (99 completions, 177 yards, 11 TD, 6 INT) has fronted and offensive attack which has averaged 391 yards per contest this season.
Turner rushed for 276 yards and added a pair of scores on back-to-back possessions in the second half last Friday night.
“I’ve just been proud by the kids and how they responded. I think our kids know what’s at stake and, you know, what’s gonna be required of them to come out with a win,” Simpson said.