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New-look Wolves back in title game
Cardiello, fellow seniors lead young team back to Georgia Dome
Buford lineman Josh Cardiello, left, reaches for as Gainesville High’s Deshuan Watson scrambles during the Wolves loss to the Red Elephants earlier this season.

Buford vs. St. Pius X

When: 5:30 p.m. Friday

Where: The Georgia Dome, Atlanta


Radio: 550-AM

Coaches: Buford, Jess Simpson; St. Pius X, Paul Standard

Records: Buford (11-3, No. 2 Region 7-AAA); St. Pius X (12-2, No. 1 Region 6-AAA)

Key players: Buford, RB Dontravious Wilson (5-11, 215 Sr.), TE/LB Korie Rogers (6-2, 210 Sr.), OL/DL Josh Cardiello (6-4, 285 Sr.). St. Pius X, QB Jack Spear (6-3, 198 Sr.); RB/DB Nicholas Ruffin (6-1, 185 Jr.); LB Daniel Crochet (6-3, 208 Jr.).

Prediction: BUFORD. There may be a lot of new faces on this year’s Wolves, but the Georgia Dome is still familiar territory, and this year’s team has already shown an ability to rally from behind, if needed.

There’s almost nothing familiar about this year’s Buford football team.

This season’s Wolves include a host of new faces to replace the 30 graduated seniors — 20 of them starters — from last season’s Class AA runners-up.

And this season’s Buford team finished the regular season with three losses (two by forfeit), and without a region title and a No. 1 seed for only the second time since 2000.

“Everything about this year has been different,” Buford coach Jess Simpson said.

Even the state finals opponent is different. After four straight years facing Calhoun — which is once again in the Class AA finals — seventh-ranked St. Pius X (12-2) is the team No. 3 Buford (11-3) needs to defeat to win the program’s ninth state title and first in Class AAA.

The two will meet for only the third time at 5:30 p.m. Friday at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta.

About the only similarity between this year’s team and the prospect-loaded 2011 team is that, like last season and every season since 2007, the Wolves are back in the state finals.

And the fact that the title game appearance streak remains alive has a lot to do with the few familiar faces remaining.

“Josh Cardiello, Mikey Bart, Dontravious Wilson and a few others, I’ve got such big praise for them,” Simpson said. “These guys looked around and knew the team looked different, but they had faith that we could still win.

“These guys were a big part of getting the younger guys to grow up.”

Cardiello, for one, said he really enjoys playing on this team, and feels that these Wolves have something to prove.

“A lot of people had doubts about our senior class, that we didn’t have superstars,” the offensive tackle/defensive tackle said. “It motivated us to say that we may not have a lot of superstars, but we can do the job just as well.

“Last year was a team of superstars, stacked at every position. Some people wanted to win for themselves, some for the team. This year we’ve really bought in as a team, one team unit. We’ve had some ups and downs, but to be honest it’s probably one of the better seasons — I’ve enjoyed it a lot.”

And while this team may be young and relatively inexperienced, especially compared to last year’s team, which boasted 11 college prospects but lost in overtime to Calhoun to break a four-year state title streak, these Wolves have already overcome their share of obstacles, having had to rally to win each of its last two games. Last week against Cartersville, Buford fell behind 10-0 early, then allowed just 24 yards of offense to the opponent from the middle of the second quarter on, allowing the offense to rally for the win.

Cardiello sees the obstacles the Wolves have overcome along the way, including a Week 2 loss to Gainesville and falling behind the last two weeks, as positives for a team that won its last two state championships after suffering a loss early in the season.

“I know everyone shoots for 15-0, but losing a game early is kind of an eye opener, that we’re not perfect,” Cardiello said. “And we were down at halftime the last two games, but we know who prepares harder, works harder, so we know we’re going to out-tough our opponents, and the last two weeks we’ve come out in the second half and out-toughed our opponents.”

Simpson gives the defense much of the credit for Buford’s comebacks in the last two rounds. This season the unit, led by linebacker Korie Rogers (54 solo tackles, 12 tackles for loss, seven sacks and four interceptions) among others, has allowed opposing offenses an average of 7.5 points and 175.1 total yards per game, including just 97.1 yards rushing per game, a stat the Golden Lions with their triple-option attack will try to blow past.

“I’ve been going against the same (Calhoun) guys for two years, now with Pius it’s a totally different offense,” said Cardiello, whose Wolves last faced a triple option against White County this season, a 49-14 win. “It should be fun to see what they (St. Pius X) do after seeing Calhoun — it’ll be a little bit more of a test.”

St. Pius X is led on offense by quarterback Jack Spear, who has rushed for 811 yards and five touchdowns on 135 carries and passed for 757 yards and eight scores. Ryan Braswell leads the team in rushing with 258 carries for 1,531 yards and 30 touchdowns, while Branden Mitchell adds 92 carries for 829 yards and seven scores.

The Golden Lions have averaged 34 points scored per game, including 31 in their 25-point semifinal win against North Hall on Dec. 7 to clinch the program’s third trip to the state finals, while allowing just 13 points per game.

While the Wolves are known more as a defensive team, the offense will nonetheless challenge St. Pius’ impressive stats.

Senior running back Wilson has 1,137 yards and 14 touchdowns on 146 carries despite sitting out games with an injury, and the Wolves have a pair of quarterbacks in Taylor Mitchell (842 yards passing and seven touchdowns) and Montgomery VanGorder (753 and 11) who have thrown just one interception between them.

The Wolves have averaged 367.3 yards of total offense — 252 rushing — per game and 37.9 points per game, including six defensive touchdowns and four special teams touchdowns on the season.

More importantly, this year’s Wolves know how to win through adversity.

“It’s just been a group of guys who have refused to give up,” Simpson said. “We’ve been tested and we’ve been energized by it.

“This one of the most exciting teams I’ve coached in a long time.”

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