BUFORD — EXCITEMENT ECHOED THROUGH the Buford girls’ soccer huddle as they defeated Hillgrove to advance to the 7A semifinals for the first time since 2021. The celebrations, however, were much more muted than they were a week ago.

None of the players or coaches spoke short of breath. They didn’t feel such a sense of euphoria, either. Tuesday night marked a business venture, and the Wolves got the job done.

“We all have the same goal,” sophomore Evany Torres said. “We know we have to stay locked in.”

Buford topped Hillgrove, 2-0, Monday night to move on to the “Final Four” of the 32-team bracket and become two steps away from lifting the first state championship trophy. The Wolves will face Walton after the Raiders beat Campbell, 4-1, in the quarterfinals.

In 2021, Buford lost to Cambridge by a 2-1 tally in the semifinals. Thursday’s game also sets up a rematch of the 2023 second-round pairing, which Buford lost to Walton, 2-1. Buford and Walton played during the 2024 campaign, and the Wolves won 1-0 on Feb. 15.

“It’s a lot of pressure,” senior goalkeeper Alina Pope said as Buford continues to advance. “Pressure is a privilege. We almost have PTSD from losing our freshman year, but this is a full-circle moment.

“We are ready for any challenge.”

Added fifth-year head coach Megan Hill: “We’ve been here before. We have to keep our composure. It’s step-by-step.”

Here are three things we learned from Buford’s quarterfinal victory.

Goal scorers arrive in clutch moments

Late in the first half, Torres found gold.

Last week against Milton, Buford found its way to victory after a stalemate in the first half. The Wolves found confidence that they could find the late separating goal. This time, the cushion came early.

The goal came on a cross, which Hill said was an area for improvement two weeks prior. Torres said she saw an opening to start running when the ball was passed back to the opposing goalkeeper. She jumped at the opportunity and finished.

“This was a very hard team,” Torres said. “We knew it wasn’t going to be easy.”

Despite having eight seniors, Buford has two younger attackers in Torres and sophomore Jada Taylor returning to the program.

“Evany brings a composure and technical aspect up top,” Hill said. “She’s consistent with the ball at her feet. She provides a lot of different options for dynamic runs.”

In the final five minutes of the second half, Sabrie Vargas notched the sealing score for another “Big Five” goal. At that moment, Buford knew it had the victory in hand.

“Something’s clicking,” Hill said. “Something’s working.”

Prevailing after yellow

Midway through the second half, adversity hit Buford. It held a one-goal lead at the time when Pope, the team’s anchor in front of goal, received a yellow card. She tried to corral the ball, and referees called a foul on the senior for a rough tackle on a Hillgrove player.

At the high school level, a player must come out of the game until the free kick is completed when receiving a yellow card. Pope gave way to her backup and Buford trotted out sophomore Natalie Dinh.

“Natalie persevered while not thinking she was coming in,” Pope said. “I thought our team handled it great. As soon as Natalie came in, they lifted her up and gave her the confidence we needed.”

It might seem like a lot of pressure, but Dinh has been in these situations before. She replaced Pope as freshman during the 2023 season after the then-junior suffered a year-ending anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) injury.

Hill called it a testament to the adverse situations Buford has faced throughout the season. Dinh, however, didn’t face much difficulty. Buford’s defense stepped up and deflected the kick out of play to set up a corner, which allowed Pope to re-enter. She saved the corner kick and preserved the shutout.

“The wall actually saved us there, and it was an incredible effort to get the ball out of the frame of the goal,” Pope said. “I went off and wasn’t even nervous. I had full confidence in our team.”

The rematch

The thought of Walton continues to sting.

Buford will never forget traveling to northwest to Marietta and seeing its season end at the hands of Walton in the second round. That defeat served as a big reason why the Wolves had such elation after beating Milton and advancing to the quarterfinal.

Senior Abby Kilman said Buford didn’t “think Walton was as good as they were” on that day. Now, Buford has a chance at revenge on its home turf and will offer Walton the utmost respect.

This time, a victory means a state title appearance.

“It’s very exciting,” Torres said. “Trying to get our game back is a huge deal. We also wouldn’t want it to be the last night for our seniors.”

Opposite the winner of Buford and Walton, the victor will face either West Forsyth or North Gwinnett for the state championship on May 10 at Duluth High School.

Walton or not, Buford can see itself being there. The Wolves can taste it, because they’re playing better than they ever have before.

“We’re reaching our peak,” Pope said. “Obviously, we’re so close to state, so that’s bringing everyone up.”

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