BUFORD — Buford came into Friday’s game with a perfect record, ranked No. 1 in the state and a consensus top-10 team nationally, and winner of three straight state championships.
Walton was not intimidated.
The Raiders prepared this week as if Buford was just another opponent and left Tom Riden Stadium with a 42-35 victory in the second round of the Class AAAAAAA state playoffs.
The win sent shockwaves far beyond the Buford and Walton communities — but not as much on the Raiders’ sideline.
“We won the ballgame, and we expected to do that,” Walton coach Daniel Brunner said. “I came over here to win a ballgame. The team came over here to win a ballgame. We’re not shocked. We’re excited, and we’re expected to keep this thing rolling.”
Walton will return to the road for the quarterfinals next week, facing another unbeaten foe in Carrollton.
Of Buford’s 11 wins this season, eight of them were decided by more than 20 points, but that did not faze Walton’s will to play spoiler.
“We knew that it was going to happen, and we’re excited that it happened,” said quarterback Jeremy Hecklinski, who threw for 326 yards and three touchdowns. “It was a great team win.”
The Raiders (10-2) played their best football when it really mattered most in the fourth quarter, though the play that launched Walton’s momentum came on the final play of the third.
On third-and-eight, Walton was pinned on its own 9-yard line with the score knotted at 21-all. As Hecklinski was avoiding pressure from Buford’s front seven, he managed to find Hunter Teal near the 35, and Teal broke free before he was chased down at the Buford 12.
“We needed something. We were backed up,” Hecklinski said. “Coach put his trust in me, and me and Teal have a very special connection. I got him on the field, and we made a play.”
Hecklinski made another play on the next play when he connected with Wyatt Sonderman for a 12-yard touchdown to give Walton its first lead since early in the second quarter.
On the ensuing kickoff, Walton attempted an onside kick and prevailed.
Two plays later, Hecklinski hit Ayden Jackson for a 30-yard gain to put the Raiders in the red zone. Makari Bodiford took over from there and needed three straight carries to get into the end zone to put Walton ahead 35-21 with 9:36 left to play.
In desperation, Buford (11-1) scored on a fourth down when Alabama commit Justice Haynes ran a 22-yard sweep untouched into the end zone.
When Walton got the ball back, the Raiders were not afraid to take a chance on fourth down.
On fourth-and-6 from the Buford 44, Hecklinski and Jackson connected on a catch-and-run for a touchdown that put the Raiders back ahead by two scores with 6:17 remaining.
With roughly 6 minutes in the game, Buford was already out of timeouts, but the Wolves stormed down the field to Walton’s 25-yard line. Quarterback Dylan Wittke went for the end zone twice, only for his second attempt to be picked off by Nasier Pressley.
That allowed Walton to chew a big chunk of clock before punting the ball back to Buford.
By the time, the Wolves had cut the lead on a 20-yard touchdown pass from Wittke to Tyshun White with less than a minute play. Buford’s chances then depended on an onside kick, which it did not recover.
Teal led Walton with 133 yards on seven catches, while Jackson added five catches for 115.
Buford was flagged 17 times for 152 yards and had to use its final timeout early in the fourth quarter when it did not having the right personnel on the field.
Instead, the Wolves were left with their earliest playoff exit since 1999, and the most points allowed in their own stadium since a year earlier.
“We are a young team,” Buford coach Bryant Appling said. “We’ve played young all year long, and we played a little young tonight. We made way too many mistakes. I count about 10 or 11 times we gave (Walton) extra chances. Hopefully, our kids go into the offseason with a chip on their shoulder.”