Staff Photo: Jonathan Phillips. Buford head coach Jess Simpson talks to his team after winning the Class AA state championship at the Georgia Dome. Simpson has led his team to three straight state titles and is the Gwinnett Daily Post's Coach of the Year.
Buford head coach Jess Simpson still points to the Week 3 loss his team suffered as the turning point this year.
The Wolves fell to Lovett 28-21 and had a bye the following week. That gave players and coaches time to reflect on the loss. The two weeks were the toughest the coaches ever put the players through, but it worked.
Buford won its next 12 games, including the Class AA state championship. It was the third-straight title for Simpson, the Daily Post's Coach of the Year.
"Saturday and Sunday (after the state championship game) I was really still in shock, and Sunday evening is really when it hit me. I'm just so proud of these kids," Simpson said. "That was the fork in the road for this team. We addressed the brutal facts of who we were, we challenged them and they responded."
Buford's loss to Lovett snapped a 49-game regular season and 58-game region streak of wins.
"By the end of the week, every player agreed that was the best thing that could happen to us," Simpson said.
Simpson has been at Buford the last 14 years, including the last five as head coach. He has won three state titles and five region titles as a head coach and has compiled an impressive 68-3 record at Buford. But of all the wins and all the titles, this year's 13-10 state championship victory over Calhoun was special.
"They are all sweet, but this one is sweet in its own way," Simpson said. "It was one of those things as a coach we knew it was a tough task to get a state championship out of this group."
This year's team had the typical big offensive line and defensive lines led by Kolton Houston (Georgia commit) and Du'Von Millsap (South Carolina), but it lacked the experience of a senior-laded squad. The Wolves had only 17 seniors, a small class for the Wolves, and had to rely on several first-year players and young players at key positions. Then there was Jessel Curry (Auburn) who handled everything else from fullback, linebacker and punting.
"With the linemen we had and some of the talent we knew they could compete at that level," Simpson said. "We didn't know if our youth and inexperience would hurt us, but they improved and we're excited about their future."
Buford recorded five shutouts in its next six games after the Lovett loss on its way to a share of the Region 6-AA title. The Wolves had eight shutouts this season, setting a new school record. First-year quarterback Alexander Ross set the school passing record with 1,776 yards and Sherman Page set the school receiving record with 56 catches.
Now the Wolves have the task of trying to four-peat, which hasn't been done since West Rome did it from 1982-85. That will be tough with it graduating a large portion of it's offensive and defensive lines.
"I think the reason why we've been able to compete this decade is because we've had a good line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball," Simpson said.
But the Wolves do have 10 starters returning, including quarterback Ross.
"That's for everybody else to talk about," Simpson said of a four-peat. "We'll go back to work Jan. 5 with the running and working out. We like our young guys and they are fun to coach. But they have to figure out their identity and what they want to be."