MOMENTS AFTER the Williams-Brice Stadium scoreboard game clock flipped to all zeroes, Dutch Fork coach Tom Knotts began looking to the future. His team’s 34-22 Class 4A Division I championship loss to Gaffney was in the rearview mirror.
Knotts, heartbroken for the seniors who helped spearhead Dutch Fork’s march to its first title-game appearance, was scouting the reaction to the loss by his team’s sophomores and juniors.
“I’m kind of looking around to the underclassmen to see how they’re reacting,” Knotts said. “I see a few tears and I see some guys upset and I felt some intensity on the sideline in a lot of them.”
Knotts has every reason to believe Saturday’s game was only the beginning for Dutch Fork football.
“What we’ve been talking about is laying the foundation,” Knotts said, “like what Gaffney’s got.”
What Gaffney has is a state record — for all classifications — 16 state championships. The title-game appearance was Gaffney’s 14th since 1991. It represents the kind of run Knotts became accustomed to when he coached in North Carolina, where his teams at Charlotte Harding, West Charlotte and Charlotte Independence reached 11 title games and won eight over a 21-year period.
When he paraded around the Dutch Fork locker room minutes before kickoff, Knotts believed Saturday’s would be the first in the same kind of run in South Carolina football.
Knotts flashed one of his Charlotte Independence championship rings to players.
“What a giant climb, what a great climb, seniors,” Knotts shouted, knowing those seniors were with him his first two seasons at Dutch Fork when the Silver Foxes had matching 10-3 records. Then came the ascent to the title game with three consecutive playoff wins after an 8-3 regular season.
“Climbing to the top is the best part,” Knotts said. “Let’s go get it. Let’s go get it.”
Knotts then recounted how he had enlisted a guest speaker to address one of his Charlotte Independence championship teams before a title game. Knotts said he nearly fell out of his chair that day when the speaker mentioned that, no matter the game’s outcome, the sun would rise the next morning.
“Hey, the sun ain’t coming up tomorrow,” Knotts told his team. “The sun is not coming up tomorrow, and this is what you’re doing in your final hour. And that’s fine. You put so much into this. You put so much into this. You’ve got to approach it like the sun is not going to come up tomorrow.”
Dutch Fork might have had a there’s-no-tomorrow approach, but it could not match Gaffney’s today-is-the-day line of attack. Gaffney pounced on every one of Dutch Fork’s numerous early mistakes, including an admitted coaching miscalculation by Knotts.
Knotts, whose team featured a punishing rushing attack in rolling up 41 points per game during the season, opted instead for the airways to disastrous first-quarter results. On its first four possessions, Dutch Fork ran the ball once for a loss of 1 yard. It attempted seven passes, completed two for 10 yards and threw two interceptions.
When Gaffney turned the second interception into a 25-yard touchdown drive and a 17-0 lead, the game’s outcome was essentially decided. If not, then a two-play, 60-yard Gaffney touchdown drive at the end of the half — for a 24-7 lead — sealed it for sure.
Gaffney built its lead to 34-14 with six minutes remaining when Dutch Fork got possession at its 5-yard-line. The Silver Foxes covered 95 yards in 14 plays and consumed all but the game’s final 21 seconds. Then they converted a two-point conversion.
“You’re always scared that your team will quit on you at the end,” Knotts said. “That’s every coach’s biggest fear is to have your team quit. I’ve had fear like everybody else. So, I was real proud of them for going in and stuffing it down their throat.”
While the final touchdown helped soothe the wounds of the defeat somewhat, much hurt still remained as Knotts checked the reaction to the loss among his underclassmen and began looking ahead.
“Hopefully, in 15 or 20 years, we’ll be the Gaffney of South Carolina,” Knotts said. “The climb to the top is extremely hard, but it’s been an enjoyable year. We’re certainly not at the mountain top, but we’re trying to get (with) the Byrneses and Gaffneys of the world.”
And, he admitted, the sun would most assuredly come up this morning.