Faye Norris fondly recalls the first time she met Alaina Coates.
It was at a summer basketball camp prior to her first season as the coach at Dutch Fork. Norris had been hired to replace Anne Long, who moved across town to take the job at Spring Valley.
“It was Anne’s camp for middle school players, but I took it over that first year and saw Alaina for the first time,” Norris said. “She was 6-foot-3 then and I really thought she couldn’t be that tall and a middle school kid, so I assumed she was one of the high school players that were there to help out.”
Norris was astonished when Coates fell into place with the other rising eighth-graders.
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“At first I thought she didn’t hear me when I asked the eighth-graders to line up, so I repeated myself,” she said. “Only then did I realize that I might have something here. I had never heard of her before that day, but it didn’t take long for me to realize that Alaina was something special.
“She was already blessed with speed, strength and great hands. She was more than an athlete playing basketball. She was a basketball player who was a great athlete.”
Coates began her career in 2008-09, averaging 13.3 points and 11.0 rebounds while helping the Silver Foxes post a 17-6 record.
With Coates and Norris in place, Dutch Fork kept alive the winning tradition established by Long.
“I have a lot of respect for Anne, but I didn’t come in trying to fill anybody’s shoes,” said Norris, who had been coaching for more than 20 years. “I simply did what I always do — teach the game, step by step. There was no resistance to me as the new coach by the players. The seniors were with me from the start, and that made the transition a smooth one. It was a good fit for everyone.”
Dutch Fork improved every season in the Coates-Norris Era — jumping from 17 wins and a 1-1 playoffs showing to 21 and 24 wins in the next two seasons with playoff runs to the state semifinals.
It all came together down the stretch in the 2011-12 season with an 11-game winning streak culminating with a 61-29 rout of Orangeburg-Wilkinson in the Class 4A championship game and a final 27-3 record. The late-season run was sparked by a victory against Midlands nemesis Spring Valley and former coach Long in February that proved the Silver Foxes were true contenders.
“I remember that game like it was yesterday,” Norris said. “They were a great team and deserved all the recognition they got. We thought we were as good, but we had to prove it on the court, and we did. That made us realize we could be champions.”
Dutch Fork easily handled the pressure of being a defending champion this past season, going 29-0 and winning another state title in Coates’ final season. The younger, new-look Silver Foxes were able to withstand several injuries to key players, including Coates, who missed the first four games after undergoing offseason knee surgery.
The Foxes are one of The State’s Dozen Dynasties in the Midlands.
“This team was able to focus only on the next game, the next practice,” Norris said. “There was never any talking about being the defending champion, the winning streak or the national ranking when it came out. Even though we had some young players in key roles, we played with a lot of confidence and maturity. I attribute that to the great leadership by our veteran players.”
Coates, who developed into a dominant, 6-foot-4 force in the post, had plenty of individual honors come her way. She was named to the all-state team for the third year in a row, was named the Gatorade player of the year in South Carolina, was named Miss Basketball and earned a spot in the elite McDonald’s All-America game in Chicago.
She also managed to earn a gold medal in the shot put at the Class 4A state track meet in her final athletics event representing Dutch Fork.
Coates became a local legend by signing a letter of intent to play for Dawn Staley at South Carolina.
“It was a pleasure to coach such an exceptional player,” Norris said. “Alaina is, without a doubt, the best player I ever coached or ever coached against. And I think it’s a great thing for our program, our community and our state that she has decided to continue her college career in her home town.”
Coates was remarkably consistent during her career at Dutch Fork.
She finished with five consecutive seasons in double figures in points and rebounds, averaging 17.8 points, 11 rebounds and blocking 458 shots.
Coates had a .698 field goal shooting percentage, and significantly upgraded her work at the free throw line. She made half of her free throws in her first two varsity seasons, but converted at a .660 rate over her final three seasons.
Coates also became a better ball handler. She averaged 2.2 turnovers per game through her sophomore year, but cut that to 1.4 miscues over her final two seasons. Her assist rate also rose with 72 in her junior and senior years after being credited with 42 during her first three years.
“Alaina is a once-in-a-generation player,” Norris said.
Dutch Fork expects to have three starters back next season, but it will be the first time in recent memory the Silver Foxes will have not have Coates or Donnesha Shuler, the other star of the era.
“We’ll be fine,” Norris said. “We have some kids who have been through it and know what it takes to win. Nothing’s going to change the way we approach things.”
COMING FRIDAY: A.C. Flora boys golf
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DUTCH FORK TITLES
State championships won by the Dutch Fork girls basketball team:
High School: Dutch Fork
College: Freshman at USC in the fall
Honors: McDonald’s All America; S.C. Gatorade Player of the Year.