Two teams with a chip on their shoulders, put there for different reasons, meet in this year’s Class AAA championship game.
No. 3 Buford and No. 7 St. Pius are in the title game. For Buford it’s a chance to avenge last year’s deflating loss to Calhoun in the Class AA final. For St. Pius it’s a final opportunity to scoff at the non-believers. The two clubs meet for the championship Friday at 5:30 at the Georgia Dome.
Buford (11-3) returns to the championship game for the sixth straight season. Last year the Wolves came to the Dome loaded with seven Division I signees and were stunned 27-24 in overtime by Calhoun. It broke Buford’s three-year stranglehold on the championship.
St. Pius (12-2) lost the nucleus of last year’s 12-1 team, including a pair of Division I players, which advanced to the quarterfinals. Not many people gave the Golden Lions a chance to be as good, must less better. That proved to be the motivation they needed.
“We graduated a really good class of seniors,” said St. Pius coach Paul Standard. “When all those guys graduated, there was a feeling that we would have a good team, but it wasn’t going to be a stellar year. This year’s seniors took that to heart and they’ve played with a chip on their shoulder.”
St. Pius beat the odds by facing a daunting schedule that Standard pieced together. The four non-region games were against teams that were ranked at some point during the season. Each of those four opponents went on to win their first game in the playoffs. That gauntlet included a trip to The Brickyard to play No. 1 Thomson, which was at full strength when they beat the Golden Lions 21-14.
“We certainly were tested early,” Standard said.
Now the Golden Lions get another test in one of the state’s most dominant programs. Buford has won double-digit games each year since 1999. Seven times during that span they’ve won state championships, once in Class A and six times in Class AA. The Wolves got promoted to Class AAA this year and haven’t slowed a bit; their only loss on the field came against Gainesville, a finalist in Class AAAAA. Buford forfeited two games because of playing an ineligible player at the end of two games that it won by a combined score of 124-0.
“We finally break through and get to the championship game and who do we play? We get the University of Alabama,” Standard said. “They look like Alabama wearing green and gold.”
Buford averages 37.9 points per game and has scored 71 touchdowns; its opponents have scored only 14. The Wolves prefer to run the ball; they average 252 yards per game and 7.0 yards per carry. Dontravious Wilson has 1,137 yards and 14 touchdowns, but has rarely played into the fourth quarter. Zavior Hoxie (738 yards, seven TDs) and Joshua Thomas (420 yards, seven TDs) also do the heavy lifting.
But Buford is an effective passing team, too. They average 115.3 yards per game through the air and have completed 63 percent of their passes, 18 of them for touchdowns. Taylor Mitchell (842 yards, seven TDs) and Montgomery VanGorder (753 yards, 11 TDs) share the responsibilities. Amazingly they’ve had only one of their 175 passes intercepted.
St. Pius is a running team. The Golden Lions have run in 648 times for 4,238 yards. They run the option and rarely deviate from that course. Ryan Braswell, one of those seniors with something prove, enjoyed a breakthrough year with 1,531 yards and 30 touchdowns. Branden Mitchell has added 829 yards and seven touchdowns.
Overshadowed has been senior Jack Spear, a lanky lefty who has been the answer at quarterback. Spear has rushed for 811 yards and five touchdowns and thrown for 757 yards and eight touchdowns.
The Buford defense has been nasty against the run. The Wolves have allowed only 3.2 yards per rushing attempt and seven touchdowns against the run. But their efficiency isn’t likely to sway the Pius gameplan.
“We’re going to run it,” Standard said. “If we get beat Friday, we’ll get beat doing what we’ve been doing for 14 weeks.”