Dutch Fork’s Tom Knotts and his counterpart at Spring Valley, Miles Aldridge, were hired at their respective schools a couple of weeks apart at the conclusion of the 2009 football season.
The two once-proud programs were reeling. The Silver Foxes had posted consecutive 2-9 records and were looking for a quick turnaround. The Vikings were coming off a 2-9 season and had won only three games from 2007-2009.
Enter Knotts and Miles and the resurrection of the two programs began taking shape in distinctly different paths.
“I probably had a little more to work with when I got here than he did,” Knotts reflected this week. “He’s built his program slowly and we’ve kind of plateaued out and they’re continuing to get better. They have a lot of athletes on that field now where his first year there they didn’t have that caliber of athlete on the field that he does now. I felt for him at the beginning because I knew he was working his rear-end off but he just didn’t have the Jimmy’s and the Joe’s. You need to have those, it doesn’t matter if you’re doing my offense, or Miles’ offense or the Byrnes offense. You have to have the guys to get it done. You can see those guys are in place at both schools.”
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The two teams square off tonight at Harry Parone Stadium in one of the marquee matchups in the second round of the Class 4A, Division I state playoffs. The winner will be two steps away for erasing one of the longest championship droughts in Columbia-area history.
The Midlands has not crowned a state champion in Class 4A since Richland Northeast won the Division II title in 1993. Spring Valley was the last to win a 4A, Division I title, in 1988. But with Knotts and Aldridge at the helm, the expectation is these two schools could change that in the near future. The Silver Foxes reached the title game last season before finishing runner-up to Gaffney. The Vikings are undefeated and have improved each of the four years under Aldridge.
Aldridge went 3-8 his first season and has improved to 5-6, 8-4 and 12-0 since that time. The 1967 graduate of A.C. Flora honed his skills mostly at the college level. He’s worked at several ACC and SEC schools (Clemson and South Carolina included) and only returned to the high school ranks in 2009.
The transition has been seamless.
“Basically, I just give the kids a plan,” Aldridge said. “I have to be here with the keys to unlock and lock it back up but they’ve come and reached out to take advantage to what is being offered to them. They grabbed it and made it what it is. I have expectations but I don’t set expectations on the kids. I work hard every day and hope for the best. I’m happy where it’s right now but I’m going to work hard tomorrow and I’m going to work hard next week and work hard next month to keep trying to get better. I get asked if I expected to be undefeated in my fourth year. I don’t expect it , I worked for it and hope it happens.”
He’s kept an eye across town on what Knotts has accomplished at Dutch Fork. The two are familiar with each other from when Aldridge recruited the Charlotte area when Knotts was in the midst of winning seven consecutive state titles and 109 consecutive games at Independence High in North Carolina.
“He has an outstanding record,” Aldridge said of Knotts. “Most people could only hope to accomplish half of what he has. It’s really unbelievable when you stand back and look at things. There wasn’t much doubt that we would have Dutch Fork among the state’s elite very quickly.”
Knotts found success a little quicker than Aldridge. Dutch Fork went 4-18 the two seasons before his arrival but quickly turned things around to finish 10-3 that first season. Since that time, the Silver Foxes have finished 10-3, 11-4 and are currently 9-3.
“I went about it with the expectations that we wanted to be in the hunt for a state championship every year,” Knotts said. “We thought the talent was here and if they would buy into to everything we wanted to do, the sky would be the limit.”
“We have a great school system that is putting money into our athletic programs. We have first-rate facilities. The groundwork is there; now the coaches and players have to do their job. The expectation is we would be mentioned with Byrnes, Northwestern, Gaffney and Goose Creek. We wanted to play them, compete with them and be mentioned in the same breath with them.”
This will not be the first time the two coaches faced off. They were region rivals in their first two seasons and Knotts got the best of things both times. Dutch Fork won 34-14 in 2010 and 47-14 in 2011 but those numbers are forgotten now.
Both teams have strong offenses that have the ability to score from anywhere on the field. The defenses feature standouts such as Lane Ecton and Stephen Davis for Dutch Fork and Christian Miller and Josh Harlan for Spring Valley who can be tough on the opposition.
Regardless of what happens tonight, these two coaches have turned their programs into two of the better the Midlands has seen in quite some time.
They both hope a state championship is in the near future.
“The foundation is laid at both schools,” Knotts said. “We both just have to keep continuing to build on that foundation now. I think we both have things in place to where we might be able to be mentioned with those heavyweights in the near future.”