It was not supposed to be this way.
Dutch Fork’s defense of its state Class 4A, Division I football championship died Saturday at Williams-Brice Stadium, mostly the victim of self-inflicted wounds.
Whatever could possibly go wrong for the Silver Foxes went wrong in a 47-17 loss to a Hillcrest team appearing in its first state title game. The Rams looked every bit like the team that had been here before, scoring the final 41 points of the game.
“It was one of the worst experiences of my football life,” said Dutch Fork coach Tom Knotts, who was bidding to win his 10th state championship in North Carolina and South Carolina.
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“The wheels came off and kept getting worse.”
Knotts admitted that his team did not properly respect Hillcrest, which had won only 27 games between 2000 and 2009 before coach Greg Porter took over.
“You’ve got to keep speaking it, you’ve got to keep telling them (they can win),” Porter said of how he turned things around at Hillcrest. “When I first got this job I said we’re going to win the state championship. They all laughed.”
No one is laughing anymore, particularly at Dutch Fork.
Knotts said he first sensed a week ago Sunday that his team might not have recovered properly from the emotional high of posting lopsided wins over state powers Dorman and Byrnes in the previous two rounds of the playoffs.
Dutch Fork appeared to be on track in building a 17-6 lead midway through the second quarter. Then the roof caved in. The cart collapsed. The tires went flat.
Starting quarterback Tate Fant went down with what Knotts termed a concussion.
From there, the Silver Foxes were unable to mount any kind of offense, managing only 2 yards on eight plays in the third quarter and completing only one pass for 10 yards in the second half.
Aside from the injury, Dutch Fork could not seem to get out its own way.
• The Silver Foxes turned the ball over three times, including an interception returned 48 yards by Hillcrest’s Marco Westfield for a second-quarter touchdown.
• Star running back Matt Colburn was stymied throughout. He averaged 136 yards rushing per game prior to Saturday, yet managed 75 yards on 22 carries against Hillcrest.
• Dutch Fork was penalized 10 times for 92 yards, including a 15-yard illegal participation call in the third quarter that nullified a Hillcrest punt and gave the Rams a first down en route to a 66-yard touchdown drive.
Perhaps representative of Dutch Fork’s play the entire evening was the Silver Foxes’ first series of the second half.
Dutch Fork was down to its third quarterback, Bryce Thompson, who lost 2 yards on first down. The Silver Foxes were then penalized 5 yards for delay of game, and another 5 yards for a false start. After Colburn was stopped for no gain, Thompson scrambled for a loss of 1 yard.
That set up a fourth-down punt from the Dutch Fork 16-yard line. The line-drive boot was fielded on the run by Hillcrest’s Brian Spurgeon, who returned it 45 yards untouched into the end zone.
That gave Hillcrest a 33-17 lead and essentially sealed Dutch Fork’s fate.
It left Dutch Fork stunned.
“It’s just probably one of the biggest disappointments of my life, so far,” Colburn said afterward. “We’ve worked so hard, just put so much time and effort into this. This is just a huge regret to not finish what we started.
“We’ve gone through a lot of adversity this year, and we bounced back. I just don’t understand why we couldn’t get the job done tonight. We just let little things slip through the cracks. We just weren’t on key at all. We had no momentum.”
Only afterward did Dutch Fork get something right. Despite the hung heads and long faces, Knotts made his team stand and watch the celebration and championship trophy presentation to Hillcrest out of “respect” for the winners.
That is not the way the ending was supposed to be.