It didn’t take long for Dutch Fork to realize the calendar had turned and it was going to be a challenge being the hunted without their McDonald’s All-American in the middle.
The two-time defending state champions opened the 2013-14 season with an eye-opening loss to rival Irmo. There were several stumbling blocks early, but once region play began, the Silver Foxes preserved and played their way into Friday night’s championship game against Greenwood at 7 p.m. at Colonial Life Arena.
“We came out in the first game like a deer with the headlights on them,” Dutch Fork coach Faye Norris said. “After that, they realized they had to grab this thing and own it. They realized we didn’t have what we’ve had the previous years. I think it all started clicking after the second ice storm. ... They started clicking and it wasn’t just one player it was several players.”
Dutch Fork had to replace Alaina Coates, who earned SEC Freshman of the Year honors at South Carolina, along with Rose Robinson and Ky’Aire Daniels in the starting lineup and a key sub in Kyla Wigfall from last year’s undefeated state title team.
The Silver Foxes were 10-7 after dropping a two-point decision on the road at North Augusta on the last day of January. They have won none in a row since and have not allowed more than 42 points.
“Defense was going to be our friend this year,” Norris said. “We knew we needed to step it up on that end of the floor. We didn’t have Alaina to depend on, so we needed to make some adjustments. And luckily for us, it’s been working lately.”
Even though they lost a lot of scoring punch and leadership from last year, the Silver Foxes had a solid nucleus to build around. Senior captain Sydney Shull has been in the program since the eighth grade and has played nearly every position except center. She took the reigns at point guard this season and grew into that role.
Fellow captain Alexis Fraiser does the things that don’t always show up in the score book, but she is instrumental to winning. Junior Morgan Williams is the leading scorer with 14 points per game, and Zhane Green is the 3-point specialist averaging 12 points per game. All four of those players played key roles last year but needed to make the adjustment to not having the 6-4 Coates to rely on.
“We had a rough start and had to fight through a lot of adversity,” Shull said “It was difficult for us at first. We knew we had new players in new roles this season, but it took us a while to grow into what needed to be done. I believe we’ve gotten stronger as the season has progressed, and we’re playing our best basketball of the season right now.”
The growth can be traced to the defense. After suffering the 48-46 setback to North Augusta, the Silver Foxes have limited teams to an average of 30.5 points per game. The most dominant performance came in the rematch with North Augusta, when they held the Yellow Jackets to 8 points.
“If we have good defense, the offense will take care of itself,” Fraiser said. “Everyone has to do their job, and we’ve had a better effort with that the second half of the season.”
Norris understands defense will be at the forefront if Dutch Fork will be the first team since Lower Richland (2006-08) to capture three straight Class 4A state championships.
“Our defense helps our offense,” Norris said. “If we can take care of things on the defensive end of the floor, everything else should take care of itself.”