TOM KNOTTS departed Williams-Brice Stadium on Saturday evening with a Class 4A Division I football state championship trophy in tow. The Dutch Fork coach knew exactly what he was going to do as soon as he arrived home.
“I’m going to shave,” Knotts said shortly after Dutch Fork administered a 54-14 whipping on Sumter.
Knotts did not shave leading up to Dutch Fork’s first-round playoff game. So, when the Silver Foxes easily handled Fort Dorchester, Kesha Knotts urged her husband to keep the facial growth going until his Silver Foxes won the state title.
For Knotts, it probably also was about growing a beard while forever searching for a perfectly played game by one of his teams. That nearly happened against Sumter. Dutch Fork rolled up 32 first downs and 565 yards of offense, while limiting Sumter to four first downs — two on penalties — and 16 yards.
Never miss a local story.
“We’ve been talking all week about playing the perfect game,” Knotts admitted afterward. “Maybe that’s unattainable, but that’s our goal and that’s my mantra. I put a lot of pressure on kids. Some like it and some don’t. This group of 17 seniors have bucked at it a little bit, but eventually they bought in and that’s the result.”
That group of 17 seniors — minus the handful Knotts’ admittedly ran off four years ago — have learned to accept the perfectionist ways of their coach.
A year ago, in Dutch Fork’s first championship game appearance, Knotts was compelled to fire up his troops before facing Gaffney. He waved a state championship ring that he had won while coaching at Charlotte Independence in North Carolina. He delivered a spirited address that had his players ready to charge out of the locker room.
Dutch Fork lost that game 34-22.
“Oh my gosh, that was the worst feeling at the end of the game,” said Dutch Fork running back Matt Colburn, who on Saturday rushed for 210 yards and four touchdowns and caught five passes for 64 yards. “We thought, we cannot let this happen again.”
This time, Knotts took a different approach in his pregame talk to his troops.
“You don’t need a motivational pep talk,” Knotts said in measured terms just before kickoff. “You know why? Because you’re prepared. You’re prepared. You’ve been prepared for this since the eighth and ninth grade, seniors. You’re ready.
“When the time comes that you want to push that easy button and that little ugly voice in your head says let up, don’t give in. Don’t give in. Don’t hit that easy button. One hundred percent is hard. It takes desire and determination, and you’ve got it, guys. You’ve got it. You’ve proved that this year. Now let’s go take what’s rightfully ours.”
For the most part, Dutch Fork did exactly that. Yet Knotts was not happy with holding a 33-14 halftime lead.
“I’m embarrassed,” Knotts screamed at his team, his voice cracking. “The only thing good is the score.”
Knotts did not have to look at the statistics sheet to know his team missed an opportunity to blow Sumter all the way back down Highway 378. Those statistics gave every indication of a blowout.
By halftime, Dutch Fork had compiled 400 yards of offense on 49 plays, compared to 20 yards on 13 plays for Sumter. Dutch Fork had 20 first downs. Sumter had two. Dutch Fork held possession of the ball for 18:30. Sumter had it 5:30.
Sumter stayed within striking distance thanks to a 76-yard interception return for a touchdown by DeMarcus Harris and an 82-yard kickoff return for a touchdown by Xzavion Burson.
That was not what drove Knotts nuts.
“You know what guys, I’ve coached this game for 30-some years, I ain’t never kicked four field goals,” Knott shouted. “Those are four (freaking) touchdowns. Those are four touchdowns.”
There were no field goals in the second half. Dutch Fork scored touchdowns on its first three possessions of the third quarter, and the rout was on. As close as the Silver Foxes played to perfection in the first half, they came closer to not making a mistake after halftime.
That was enough to have Knotts heading home to find a razor.