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Back at Dome: Buford returns to state title game

Photo by Ben Beitzel

Photo by Ben Beitzel

FITZGERALD -- Buford is headed to a place it's called home for much of the decade -- the football state finals.

The Wolves will play for the state championship for the eighth time this decade after a 38-28 win over Fitzgerald in the semifinals of the Class AA playoffs on Friday.

Freshman kicker Adam Petroni kicked the go-ahead field goal, Andrew Swope recovered a fumble and Jessel Curry added his third touchdown of the game in the final seconds to put the game away.

"That's probably the best feeling, knowing you'll play for a state title as a senior," said Curry, an Auburn commitment. "We didn't care when we were sophomores and juniors. We wanted to win it for the seniors, but it's different now playing for the state championship."

Curry and Alexander Ross accounted for six touchdowns as two-time defending state champion Buford took down Fitzgerald (13-1) for the second straight year in the state semifinals. Ross was 12 of 18 for 231 yards with three touchdown passes and Curry had three touchdowns on offense and nine tackles on defense.

"We knew they could put up some points and we knew we had to," Ross said.

The Wolves (13-1) will play Calhoun in the state finals on Friday at the Georgia Dome at 4:30 p.m. Buford played Calhoun last year in the state finals and won 45-21. Buford's only loss of the regular season was to Lovett in Game 3, snapping a 32-game winning streak.

"I'm excited about right now and what we did tonight," Buford head coach Jess Simpson said. "It will hit me on the way home what we've got next week, but right now in this moment all these kids have put in so much work and knowing what we've got. And knowing it wasn't going to be easy and that's been a growing pain for our kids."

Buford won three straight state titles from 2001-03 and played in the championship game in 2000 and 2004. The Wolves have won the last two Class AA state championships and will play for their eighth state title next week.

Buford took a 31-28 lead on a 27-yard field goal by Petroni with 5:23 left in the game. Andrew Swope then recovered a Latravious Stewart fumble at the 31 and the Wolves had the ball back with 4:33 left in the game.

"I really felt like we were going to drive down at the end and win the ball game," Fitzgerald coach Robby Pruitt said.

The fumble recovery was the exclamation point for a Buford defense that held Fitzgerald to its second-fewest points of the season. The Purple Hurricane was averaging 47 points a game.

"Defensively, we were just hanging on," Simpson said. "We were hanging on and someone made a play. I didn't know who got it, but Buford got it and that's the whole mentality of these guys, Buford got it."

Nathan Staub led the Wolves defense with 15 tackles, Kolton Houston and Swope had seven.

After the fumble, Ross converted Buford's fifth fourth-down conversion on an 11-yard run and Curry sealed the game with his 1-yard TD run.

"I wanted to score," Curry said. "I wanted to make it a two-possession game and make sure nothing crazy happened."

Buford opened the game with a 64-yard scoring drive. Ross had a 39-yard pass to Eric Barr and then Curry scored on a 16-yard pass.

Fitzgerald countered with a three-yard touchdown run by Trenton Pruitt and took the lead on a 13-yard TD pass from Kaleb Nobles to Stephon Smalls. Nobles was 12 of 18 for 155 yards.

Buford responded with an 11-play, 53-yard drive and Curry scored on a one-yard run to tie the game 14-14.

Ryan Dillard intercepted Nobles at the 1-yard line and returned it to the 33 with 5:14 left in the half. Ross connected with Kurt Freitag for a 51-yard pass on third down and the two hooked up again for a two-yard touchdown on fourth down to give Buford a 21-14 lead.

"It was just a huge play in the game and (Ross) stepped up and made plays all night long for us," Simpson said. "I knew we had to play for touchdowns and I knew we were playing a great football team, so I just decided we would play to win tonight."

Fitzgerald tried to get in a field goal before the half, but Paul Gallegos' 42-yard field goal was short and Buford led 21-14.

"We knew we had to score and take the lead before the half," Ross said.

Fitzgerald opened the second half with a quick score on three plays. Nobles threw a 30-yard pass to R.J. Davis and Nick Williams scored from 18 yards out.

Freitag came up big again for Buford on the next series. The sophomore tight end caught his second touchdown pass on fourth down, this time for 24 yards to give the Wolves a 28-21 lead in the third quarter. Buford converted 5 of 6 fourth downs.

"Third and fourth down is where we live and that's where we do our best," Curry said.

Buford had a chance to go up two scores, but its drive stalled at the 27 after a failed fourth-down pass to start the fourth quarter. Fitzgerald responded with an 11-play scoring drive to tie the game 28-28 on a Nobles' 1-yard TD run.

Then the Wolves scored 10 points in the final 5:23 to give them a return trip to the state finals.

"To see this team and this group of guys, to be able to hang in there when it wasn't going good and playing a great team and having that character, I don't know if any Buford football team has had to show that over and over and this is a special, special group," Simpson said. "I'm so proud of them."