IRMO, SC — PERFECT. TIMES two. Dutch Fork and Irmo, two schools located seven miles apart. Two basketball programs with new state championship hardware for their trophy cases. Two teams with undefeated seasons.
I dont think that any community ever can say that they were able to do that, have two schools within a community go undefeated and win the state championship, Irmo coach Tim Whipple said Friday night on the Colonial Life Arena court as he soaked in the Irmo boys fifth state championship.
A couple of hours earlier, Whipple said he was the biggest fan of the Dutch Fork girls team, which captured a second consecutive state title under coach Faye Norris.
You know, Dutch Forks a rival but we were rooting for them, he said. We wanted them to win that game. Those girls have done a fantastic job, but Im awful proud of my guys, too.
He should be. If there was any doubt that nationally 21st-ranked Irmo would complete a 29-0 season, it was erased when senior guard Detrek Browning banked in a 3-pointer from beyond the top of the key as the buzzer sounded to end the third quarter.
That gave Irmo a 22-point lead, and the Yellow Jackets coasted to the 65-46 victory against Goose Creek. That left star guard Justin McKie with the duty afterward of making sure the championship trophy was placed properly on the floor for team photos, christening the session with a couple of kisses to the silver prize.
Both Whipple and Norris said they never set perfection as a goal at the outset of their respective seasons. Instead, the goal for both teams was to reach the state championship game.
If perfection came en route to a championship, fine.
In Whipples storied coaching career, this was the first time he dealt with the possibility of an unbeaten season. The only other season that came close was 1995, but that Irmo squad lost to Eau Claire in an early tournament. With the one loss out of the way, Irmo did not lose again en route to the state championship.
There was a lot of pressure back then to perform and perform well, Whipple said. You can compare all you want, but years are different. Its how you approach them. That was 1995. So youre talking a lot of time and a lot of games, so my approach to things has changed some also.
The biggest change for Whipple from then to now was better dealing with how to keep his team focused on the task at hand through a regular season.
I think, when you are undefeated, it creates an atmosphere where you may feel like youre better than you are, Whipple said. But I never felt that with this team. They played with a focus and an intensity and determination that, to me, showed undefeated wasnt the goal.
Dutch Forks Norris had previous experience with perfection as a player for Aiken in 1975. After falling short in the 1974 Class 4A title game to Easley for its only loss, Aiken rebounded in 1975 to complete an undefeated season with a championship victory against West Florence.
So, she admitted to knowing about the pressure that builds as a team continues to remain undefeated through 10 games, 15 games and all the way into the state playoffs.
As the season rolled along and we kept winning, Norris said, I think the girls fought a little harder to keep it there.
Coaches in all sports say a loss can prove beneficial to a team over the course of a season. While Dutch Fork never lost, Norris said there was one particular close call that served as a necessary reality check for her team.
Dutch Fork played its first five games without star center Alaina Coates, including the season-opener against Irmo. It proved to be the only game in which the Silver Foxes had to rally for a win.
That was, until Fridays championship game. Dutch Fork found itself down 40-37 to Dorman with four minutes remaining. Four clutch free throws by senior guard Rosie Robinson her only points of the game in the final 9.3 seconds sealed the 46-43 win and the 29-0 season.
Minutes after the court had cleared, the Dutch Fork team posed for pictures outside its locker room. Before getting started, Coates clutched the championship trophy, then she noticed a couple of smudges on the inscription plate.
So, Coates quickly used the front of her jersey to polish the trophy. Everything, presumably, had to be perfect.