Dutch Fork High and Irmo High are a little more than seven miles apart.
The communities are intertwined with people who have called the area northwest of downtown Columbia home for decades and outsiders who have moved in for the academics and athletics that are offered.
They attend the same churches, shop at the same stores and enjoy the same amenities. That makes the rivalry between the two schools on the athletic fields as competitive as any in the state. But when the talk turns to basketball, the two schools in District Five of Lexington and Richland Counties form a bond that is not enjoyed in many communities across the country.
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The Dutch Fork girls are ranked No. 9 in the country in the latest USA Today Super 25 girl’s basketball rankings. The Irmo boys are No. 23 in their respective poll.
“It’s good for the state,” Irmo coach Tim Whipple said. “South Carolina is known as a football state, and lot of recognition comes with that because we have some great football programs and players. It’s nice to have some recognization for basketball because we do have good programs and we do have good players and coaches. It’s important to get this type of recognition.”
Dutch Fork coach Faye Norris agrees with Whipple. Even though Norris does not live in the area, she hears the buzz generated for both squads.
“The kids at school and people in the community probably talk about it more than our team does,” Norris said. “It’s not blown out of proportion by us or the players, though. They know they are ranked nationally and are being real humble about it. I feel certain Irmo is handling it the same way.”
Both programs have enjoyed past success.
Dutch Fork is the defending Class 4A champion and has been to the title game three other times since 2002. The Silver Foxes have a 31-game win streak.
Whipple has won four state titles at Irmo since 1991 and played in three other state title games in 32 years. He recalls being ranked in the final USA Today poll in either 1994 or ’95 when the Yellow Jackets won back-to-back titles with former star USC BJ McKie leading the way.
“I think it’s a compliment to our basketball programs over the years,” Whipple said. “I think we have a reputation and it comes from guys that have built the program. They established the program here. That is why USA Today knows the name Irmo.”
Both teams have high profile recruits.
Irmo features guard Justin McKie, who is BJ’s son and is committed to play for Frank Martin at South Carolina next season.
Dutch Fork’s Alaina Coates is ranked among the top 30 players nationally in her class. She is committed to play for Dawn Staley and South Carolina next season.
“It’s a plus when you have players that are recognized nationally,” Whipple said. “Anything that brings attention to your program — in a good way — is a plus. But, regardless of that attention, you still have to go out and win games.”
According to both coaches, the feeder programs could be the most important element of their success. It helps when the C team and junior varsity run the same basic strategies and philosophies that are used on the varsity level.
“A lot of our success happens in the summer,” Norris said. “All the players and coaches are there under one roof and we build from that. My C Team coach is on every trip with the high school. She knows what we’re doing and knows what we’re looking for. That’s where it really starts. They are in tune with what we want.”
Whipple had the same sentiment.
“We have good coaches and good players throughout the feeder system,” Whipple said. “From the C Team on up, we’re getting good instruction and fundamentals, and it helps build this program.”
One big difference between the two teams is that they compared in different ways. The boys Top 25 rankings are loaded with powerhouse prep schools such as Montverde Academy (currently No. 1), Oak Hill and Whitney Young among others. Those types of schools can recruit and they have players from across the country.
Oak Hill is the home of former Lancaster product Sindarius Thornwell, a USC signee for next season, while former Gaffney standout LJ Peak is at Whitney Young and being recruited by some of the top programs across the country.
The girls rankings have more traditional schools that have built their programs through the years.
“It’s an honor for us to be mentioned along with a team the caliber of Irmo,” Norris said. “We hope at the end of the season we’re both still being mentioned in the rankings.”