Tom Knotts arrived in Columbia three years ago to take over the Dutch Fork football program brimming with self-confidence born of winning seven North Carolina state championships at two Charlotte area schools.
The outspoken Knotts made his intentions clear from the start – the idea was to turn a program that was respectable but one that had grown stale into a South Carolina powerhouse. The Silver Foxes made strides, winning 10 games, including 5-0 runs to region titles, in the first two seasons under Knotts, but the bottom line was back-to-back second-round playoff exits.
It was not what Knotts envisioned.
“We lost in the first year to Byrnes, so that is no disgrace,” he said. “Last year (against Boiling Springs) was my fault. I got greedy. I should have had us kick the extra point and gone into overtime instead of going for two and the win in regulation.”
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Still, the bitter end in 2011 did nothing to shake Knotts’ belief that he had a team on the verge of big things. Until the Silver Foxes, that is, stumbled out of the starting gate this season with 2-3 record.
“Sure I came in with a plan and was sticking with it, but to tell you the truth with the start we had this season I was on the verge of questioning what we were doing,” he said. “I fully expected to be 5-0, I really did. But we stayed the course and things eventually turned around in our favor. This senior class has been with me for three years and they’re the ones that finally bought into what we were selling. The first two teams were maybe a little more talented, but this team understood what we wanted and how best to get it.”
Despite the lack of playoff success in the first two seasons, Knotts’ report card in the Midlands can hardly be dismissed as lacking. DF has 31 wins and is the first area team to have three-straight double-digit win seasons and three straight undefeated runs to region championships since Batesburg-Leesville (1999-2001).
“I know Tom came in with a plan and he stuck with it,” said Chuck Reedy, who did the same thing at Goose Creek. “Sometimes it doesn’t happen as fast as you would like, but you can’t let go of what you believe will work at the first sign of trouble. It starts with getting the kids to commit in the weight room and in the off-season. You also have to have the support of the administration. It’s all starting to fall into place up there. Tom had great success in North Carolina, and I could see no reason why he couldn’t have success in the Midlands. Kids in Columbia can’t be all that different from the kids he coached in Charlotte.”
Dutch Fork is the first Midlands school to play for a 4A state title since Irmo in 2006. DF hopes to become the first Midlands team to claim a 4A Division I championship since Spring Valley nipped Gaffney 3-0 in 1988 on a Marty Simpson field goal.
Gaffney, on the other hand, has advanced to the finals for the 14th time since 1981. It is the most title shots for any school, not only since 1981 but also since the dawn of the modern era in 1970 when South Carolina’s public schools were fully integrated.