Staff Photo: Jason Braverman Buford's Mikey Bart (44) makes a catch before being tripped up by St. Pius' Brian O'Reilly (33) during the Class AAA state championship game at the Georgia Dome.
ATLANTA -- In his 16 years as either an assistant or head football coach at Buford, Jess Simpson has seen plenty of triumphs.
However, he admits Friday night's 10-3 win by the No. 3 state-ranked Wolves over seventh-ranked St. Pius X in the Class AAA state championship game -- giving Buford its ninth state title overall and eighth in the last 11 years -- is among the most satisfying.
"They're all special, and I don't discredit anything we've done at Buford," said Simpson, who is 108-18 officially, with five state titles in his eight seasons as Buford's head coach. "But I think the guys that have been (to the title game) before and know what this group went through will know, and I think everyone will recognize how special this was for a lot of reasons."
Chief among those reasons was the fact that it marked a return to the winner's podium after the Wolves (12-3) had their run of four straight titles ended with an overtime loss to Calhoun in last year's Class AA final.
It was a painful memory still on the minds of many of the veteran players that this year's team was able to soothe Friday.
In addition, the 2012 team came in as one of the less heralded Buford squads in recent years as it moved up to Class AAA for the first time.
Sure, the Wolves still were plenty talented enough, were expected to field another strong team and perhaps make a deep playoff run.
But losing 21 seniors, including eight Division I college signees, from last year's team tempered those expectations.
"The truth is, not a lot of folks expected us to be here with all the guys we lost (last year)," Simpson said. "We really didn't talk much about last year (throughout this season), but when kids are hungry like that, it really motivated them in the offseason."
But perhaps the most satisfaction from Friday's win comes from the personal tragedies the team had to endure over the past calendar year.
The sudden, tragic deaths of former Wolves offensive lineman and coach Ryan Daniel in January, Buford student and basketball player Adam Smith in September and Buford grad, former Wolves tight end and Air Force cadet Devin Durden in October were three blows to the entire community.
Photos of all three were very prominent throughout the Buford locker room Friday, and chants of "R.D." could be heard on the podium on the field during the postgame trophy ceremony, as well as in the locker room celebration.
"We had to go through a lot of adversity this year," said senior defensive lineman/tight end Mikey Bart, who had four tackles, including two sacks, and caught two passes for 20 yards in Friday's win. "From the beginning of the season, we were playing for R.D., and for (Smith and Durden). It just gave us more fuel and more people to play for. It gave us more motivation."
The memory of their three fallen friends also helped galvanize what was already a tight-knit group of Wolves.
"There was more team chemistry (this year)," said senior linebacker Bryson Jordan, who shared the team's tackle lead in Friday's game with Deion King with eight stops. "We really got along with the underclassmen -- the juniors and sophomores. We just jelled as a team. It was a team effort, all the way around."