Buford vs. Cook
When: 7:30 p.m. Friday
Where: Tom Riden Stadium, Buford
On radio: 550-AM
BUFORD — Thanksgiving is a time for tradition, and Buford certainly has its own set of yearly rituals on this holiday.
The Wolves, in pursuit of a third consecutive state title in Class AA, will spend Thanksgiving morning with teammates and coaches before enjoying turkey and gravy.
Even though it may seem like a slightly unorthodox schedule for a holiday, players don’t seem to mind.
“There’s really nothing unusual about it since it is the way we always do things during Thanksgiving,” Buford senior lineman Mitchell De-Walt said. “We’re really used to this schedule during the holiday.”
You see, the Wolves (11-1) are just accustomed to spending the week around Thanksgiving with football still on the brain. Playing into December almost every year will do that. It’s chalked up as the price that has to be paid for seeking yet another state title.
“This football team is a family,” senior lineman Shaun Artz said. “We spend time with our football family, then we get to spend time with our real family on Thanksgiving.”
Buford plays host to Cook (7-5) at 7:30 p.m. Friday in the state quarterfinals at Tom Riden Stadium, the school’s 10th consecutive appearance in the third round of the postseason.
When the players come in for practice today, they’ll have the same custom they have every season. First, they’ll do a short walk-through at the stadium to put the finishing touches on Friday’s game preparation. Then they’ll huddle up for a time of team reflection.
They’ll look back on the season, especially tapping into the seniors’ experiences and what they are feeling about playing with so much still on the line.
“We just go around and talk about all the memories,” De-Walt said. “It brings back so much to your mind about what has happened while we’ve played here.”
The holiday ties in well with Buford’s football program. The Wolves have a sense of community as a result of spending as much time together as a team as they do with their actual families.
During Thanksgiving break, Buford coach Jess Simpson tries to keep things consistent all the way around, since they don’t have the daily routine of a class schedule this week. They meet for breakfast, watch film, practice and eat lunch together.
“Everything is about staying on a routine,” Artz said.
Simpson says it helps to have a network of parents and coaches that are already familiar with the process to keep the players from getting distracted.
Once they’re done with this morning’s team time together, then they’ll get to go home and gobble down turkey and all the fixings with their families.
“I tell the kids not to eat too much, but I have to try not to chuckle when I say it,” Simpson said. “I know kids are going to be kids.
What will make this state quarterfinal game more meaningful for Buford is the fact that, win or lose, it will be their final game at home this season. Even with a win, the Wolves face a road game against the Fitzgerald (12-0)/Callaway (10-2) winner in the state semifinals on Dec. 4.
For senior lineman Kolton Houston, it will be the final home game at the site where his team won a Class AA state title his sophomore season, and rallied to win the Region 6-AA title against Lovett his freshman season.
“I’ve got a lot of memories on this field,” said Houston, a University of Georgia verbal commit. “That would mean so much to go out with a win here in my final (home) game.”
Buford had to go on the road to Jefferson in the second round and win before earning the right to play at home one last time. It wasn’t a easy game. The Wolves had to battle all the way to the end to knock off the Dragons, the Region 8-AA champions.
The lure of another night in front of the home fans was all the incentive they needed to win.
“It means the world to me to get to play one more time in front of our fans here at Buford,” Artz said.
The chance at three straight state titles seems increasingly meaningful for Simpson. These aren’t the same players that strong-armed teams during the 2007 and 2008 seasons.
This year, Buford has made its name by battling hard for four quarters and winning some close contests. Simpson said Buford’s moment of truth came when it was faced with a close loss to Lovett, the Region 6-AA champion, early in the regular season. It was the Wolves first regular season loss since 2004.
Even though Buford lost that game 28-21 to the Lions, Simpson was comforted by the fact that his team battled through the adversity of the game, and even had a chance to tie it in the final minute.
“I told them at that point that they were made of the right stuff, and to keep hanging in there,” Simpson said. “I couldn’t be more proud of how this team responded.”
Simpson knew from the start that people weren’t necessarily counting on Buford to win another state title this year, despite its track record of success. The Wolves have a relatively small senior class this season and in turn, have counted on a disproportionately large number of younger players to fill key roles on the team.
Now, Buford is looking to leave the program where they found it to start the season.
“To win another state title would just be a dream,” De-Walt said. “We just have to grab it and not let go.”