BUFORD — THEY NEVER practiced it before.

Around a minute remained when the Buford girls’ soccer coaches had to make a choice trailing by a goal to Walton. Head coach Megan Hill, seeking the first state championship appearance of her career, contemplated with assistant coach Kara Tavani on how to handle the situation after a foul gave Buford a free kick. They discussed and sophomore Rose Martelli recommended that the Wolves bring senior goalkeeper Alina Pope out of goal to take the set piece.

“At that moment, we knew it was the right decision,” Tavani said. “Our girls believe in each other.”

Pope stood 35 yards away from goal and readied for the kick. She didn’t want it to sail over the crossbar. She nailed it directly into a line of green uniforms. Junior Sophia Martelli headed it past Walton goalkeeper Elora Neiderpruem for the tying score with 48 seconds remaining in regulation.

A packed-out crowd ran around the complex and jumped in elation as if Buford football had scored a championship-winning touchdown. Noise could be heard from the other side of Robert Bell Pkwy.

To reiterate, the Wolves had never practiced a play like it and it turned out like a Hollywood script. Hill said Buford had itself in a position where Hill said “you have to do anything and everything” to win the game.

“I would do anything to get that goal back,” Pope said. “We preach what we play, and we’re going to continue to do that.”

Buford (20-0-1) beat Walton 2-1 with a 3-2 advantage on the penalty kick tiebreaker. The Wolves had a valiant comeback on penalty kicks, too, after trailing by a goal. Walton hit three-consecutive shots over the crossbar, and Kaitlyn White hit the final shot to give Buford the victory.

Buford will play West Forsyth (20-0-2) Friday, May 10 at Duluth High School. Kickoff is set for 5 p.m. Buford played West Forsyth in the 2023 regular season and won 2-0.

“The most rollercoaster game I’ve ever coached,” Hill said. “The most ups-and-downs.”

Walton scored with 4:39 remaining in regulation. Hill said she started to doubt a little bit if Buford could pull it out. A few players’ tears began to flow as if they thought the Wolves couldn’t rally. There were some, however, who had full confidence. Pope made it clear that her free kick led to a “Big Five” goal, which means Buford gives maximum effort in the five-minute span after a goal is scored.

The final few minutes of regulation came with plenty of action, including Walton head coach Jason Page receiving a red card and ejection, and Hill knew she couldn’t stop coaching until the final buzzer.

Buford has been a team with connection at its core. The Wolves spend ample time working on leadership, togetherness and coming through in clutch moments. Those principles paid off Thursday in front of a large crowd that got to see what Buford prides itself on in live action.

After Sophia Martelli’s header went through the back of the net, the entire team mobbed Pope to the point where she fell to the ground.

“Megan doesn’t coach quitting teams,” assistant coach Chelsea Watts said. “That’s not the culture she has built. I never doubted that we were not going to win this game. I only didn’t know when it’s going to happen.”

If not for Pope’s free kick heroics, Buford’s season would’ve ended in the most heartbreaking of ways. The Wolves have said throughout the playoffs that they would make it to the state championship, and they got it done. Buford stands a game away from its first state title in program history.

After White’s game-sealing penalty kick, Buford erupted into celebration like never before. Watts bawled crying. The entire team screamed and hugged one another. Nearly three-quarters of the team erupted into tears.

Buford knew it could get to this point, but it never imagined what the euphoric moment would be like.

The Wolves never practiced the celebration, either.

“We have everything it takes to win state,” Pope said. “That’s exactly what we’re going to do.”

FEATURED PHOTO: Courtesy of Brian Bates Photography

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