Clemson University

Better coaches, commitment help get four area teams in championship games

When the closing seconds of the 2013 high school football season are ticking off the Williams-Brice Stadium clock Saturday night, one thing will be certain – Dutch Fork or Sumter will end one of the longest droughts in Midlands football history.

Sumter is the last team from the area to claim a Class 4A, Division I state championship in football, winning in 1990 against Rock Hill.

Since then, it’s been tough sledding for Midlands programs. Upstate powers such as Byrnes, Gaffney, Spartanburg, Dorman and Rock Hill routinely have won titles in the state’s highest classification.

But with Fairfield Central and Batesburg-Leesville also playing for state titles during the Weekend of Championships starting Friday, the Midlands might be closing the gap on the rest of the state.

“When I got here, (former Lexington coach) Scott Earley said Midlands football was soft,” Dutch Fork coach Tom Knotts said. “I didn’t really see that. I saw some good football teams that always got bad draws when it came to the playoffs and were eliminated early. I think football in this area is on a definite upswing.”

Even though winning the Class 4A titles has been difficult (Richland Northeast won the 4A, Division II title in 1993), the Midlands can claim state championships at other levels.

Blythewood is the last Midlands team to win a state championship when it claimed the 2006 Class 3A championship. Camden (1990, 2001) and Fairfield Central (1996, 1997) also earned titles at the 3A level. Batesburg-Leesville (1995, 1999, 2005), Swansea (1992, 1993, 1994) and Mid-Carolina (1985) have earned Class 2A titles since 1980.

The Midlands’ football resurgence started with the administrations giving programs the support needed to compete at the highest level.

Longtime coach Jerry Brown is taking his third program to a state title game at Batesburg-Leesville, which squares off against Silver Bluff in Friday night’s Class 2A, Division II matchup at Charlie W. Johnson Stadium at Benedict. He won titles at Spring Valley in 1988 and Berkeley in 1994, 1996 and 2009. He has seen the uptick in support.

“The administration is dedicated to get the playing field level for the coaches,” Brown said. “They get the workouts during school and the personal development needed to compete at the highest level. So many times, administrators throw up obstacles. I think that caught up with the Midlands for many years and still does in some districts. It takes a lot of commitment and a lot of people don’t really want to do what it takes to be successful.”

But the biggest reason for the turnaround might be more high profile coaches are now making their homes in the Midlands. Demetrius Davis at Fairfield Central and Reggie Kennedy at Sumter are the other coaches playing this weekend.

Kennedy is in his 18th season as a head football coach and first at Sumter. He has made successful stops at Blythewood, Fairfield Central, Orangeburg-Wilkinson and Kingstree.

“I can see the difference and the gap is closing,” Kennedy said. “We’re getting some better coaching here in the Midlands now. I’m not saying the coaching in the past was terrible, but you have better quality coaches here now. I see a difference in the kids too. It’s not just known for basketball now.”

Davis agrees with Kennedy.

“I think the coaching has improved,” Davis said. “Look at the four programs still playing. You have Tom Knotts at Dutch Fork, Reggie Kennedy has a solid track record and Dr. Brown has a chance to win a title at three different schools. That’s why you still have four schools still playing.”

But even with the success of this year, it takes a little luck along the way.

“It’s the same formula if it’s at Berkeley or Batesburg-Leesville,” Brown said. “Sometimes you’re the right coach in the right place at the right time. Other times you’re not. It’s nice to see this part of the state have such a banner year and that can be traced to the administration, coaches and kids sacrificing to make it a success.”