‘Greatest Story Ever’? Dutch Fork football overcomes 2-5 start to claim title

Posted 12/7/23

The Dutch Fork football team gathered on the sideline following the program’s eighth state championship win last Friday and burst into a chant that has taken special meaning over the past few weeks. 

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‘Greatest Story Ever’? Dutch Fork football overcomes 2-5 start to claim title


The Dutch Fork football team gathered on the sideline following the program’s eighth state championship win last Friday and burst into a chant that has taken special meaning over the past few weeks. 

“GSE, GSE, GSE” the team exclaimed as the final seconds ticked away in the 2023 5A championship game. For a team that has achieved so much success in recent years, it accomplished what it felt would be the greatest story ever.

“That was something for my locker room, my meeting room, and I don’t know how it all got out,” head coach Tom Knotts said. “But it’s a pretty good story.”

The Silver Foxes got off to their worst start since 2009, the season before Knotts arrived at Dutch Fork. The team slumped out to a 2-5 start battling through injuries and lineup changes throughout the roster, 

The losses piled up and Knotts had to make changes, not just to the team but with himself and his usual approach to coaching. Throughout this time of turmoil, the team pushed the idea that this season would be the greatest story ever.

“They were hard-headed, and I was hard-headed, but I’m always going to win because I’m the coach,” Knotts said. “I finally convinced them of that and they gave me a little bit and I changed a little bit too. You can teach an old dog new tricks. I made some changes.”

The team’s first four losses came against Spartanburg, Georgia’s Colquitt County and North Carolina’s Hough and Weddington.

The final loss of the season came against White Knoll in a close 17-14 match to open region play. The team finished the season on an eight-game winning streak, gaining confidence after each victory.

“It doesn’t matter how you start it’s how you finish,” Dutch Fork defensive end Josh Smith said. “That’s the most important thing that we really learned and we kept stacking on top of it.”

Since these games, Knotts said the decreased level of competition allowed the team to get comfortable. 

“We got into a little bit easier stretch of the schedule and started doing a little bit better and got a little confidence,” he said. “You know that was a tough schedule at first. I don’t know who scheduled that.”

Dutch Fork started its win streak with victories over Chapin and River Bluff by a combined score of 97-11. The following week, the Silver Foxes beat Lexington 38-14, clinching second place in the region and at least one home playoff game. 

The team hosted three playoff games during its run to the championship, picking up wins over Boiling Springs, Gaffney and J.L. Mann. The team defeated T.L. Hannah 31-28 in its one road game.

The team clinched its spot in the title game in dramatic fashion on its home turf. The Silver Foxes trailed J.L Mann by nine with two and a half minutes left and went on to win 31-30 after a walk-off field goal.

Dutch Fork’s journey came full circle in the championship game when the Silver Foxes defeated White Knoll 21-6 behind a dominant defensive performance. 

“I was looking forward to it so much,” Dutch Fork defensive end Josh Smith said. “After our game we played against J.L. Mann, I looked at the scores, White Knoll vs. Summerville. I was more excited that they beat Summerville than we beat J.L. Mann.”

The team gave up zero touchdowns to White Knoll’s offense. The Timberwolves’ only points came off a bad snap that went into the endzone for a White Knoll recovery. 

Dutch Fork’s offense scored three touchdowns in the second half with no White Knoll response and clinched the program’s seventh title in eight years. 

“After a bad start of the season, coming back and winning the championship feels great,” linebacker Raleigh Salters said. “We just had to focus, stay locked in, grind and practice, just get it done.”

The Silver Foxes’ dedication to making the changes asked by the coaching staff allowed them to go from that 2-5 start back to where the level of play the program is accustomed to seeing, and it paid off.

“It feels amazing,” Smith said. “Being a part of such a winning program, being a part of such an amazing coaching staff, it’s just amazing.”

Throughout the season, the team never lost confidence in its ability to win every game. That determination is something Knotts said will always stand out about this team. 

“This group is really different, and that makes it special,” Knotts said. “I don’t want to say refuse to lose, but this was refuse to quit, and I’m proud of that.”

White Knoll falls in program’s first-ever championship appearance 

White Knoll head coach Nick Pelham stepped into the job three seasons ago, inheriting a team that went winless in a COVID-shortened season. 

 Since then, he has transformed the program and led the Timberwolves to their first-ever state championship game, where they ultimately fell to region rival and 5A powerhouse, Dutch Fork. 

 “I’m going to remember that it’s going to be about a three year journey with this group of young men that are hurting right now,” an emotional Pelham said following the loss. “I think they’ve taken some amazing life lessons, it’s been a pleasure to get to know them. They’re great people. I’ve gotten to know them so well. Our coaches love them.”

 White Knoll’s offense was overwhelmed by the power of Dutch Forks’ defense, and despite a first-quarter defensive touchdown, the Timberwolves failed to stop Dutch Fork’s offense from moving the ball and chewing clock in the second half.

 “They just play so hard,” Pelham said. “They play with great technique. They play with their hands. They just present such a problem because they’re big and strong and tough. They’re great kids. They’re well-coached.”

 The Silver Foxes won all three aspects of the game. They had more yards on offense, more stops on defense and a more effective special teams unit.

 “I hope our younger guys understand that you’ve got to be great in all three. That’s what Dutch Fork did. They were great in all three facets tonight,” Pelham said. “That’s what winning championship football is about. We’ve got to improve on all three things.”

 Pelham knows a thing about winning. He was on Tom Knott’s staff at Dutch Fork and won championships with the team. 

 “I don’t like to coach against my friends. I really don’t. I do better when I hate you,” Knotts said. “It’s just not fun to play your friend. I know he’s hurting right now, but what a great job he’s done with those guys. They just even look different physically.”

 Pelham got the better of his boss for the first time in his career during the regular season. White Knoll entered the championship game 14-0, including the win over Dutch Fork. But in the big game, it was Knotts’ team that came out on top.

“We knew he’d have some tricks, and he had some tricks, and a few of them worked, a few of them didn’t. I thought we hung with him in the first half,” Pelham said. 

 The team did hang with Dutch Fork in the first half, but the game slipped away in the second. Late in the game, a controversial spot put the ball on Dutch Fork’s side, a call Pelham did not understand. 

 “I don’t know how the ball got put on their hash when he was tackled in the middle of the field on fourth and one,” Pelham said. “Coach Knotts is undefeated calling plays on his hash. I don’t know how the ball ends up on their hash, then they go in and score two plays later.”

 It was an unusually quiet night for White Knoll’s offense, which had played lights out in the run to the championship game. 

 Quarterback Landon Sharpe struggled in the game and finished without a touchdown for the first time all season. But he still has the opposing coach impressed for the year he put together. 

 “They’re going to be formidable, and that quarterback is the real deal, and that’s just as a junior,” Knotts said. “We’ll be playing them again next year.”

 White Knoll will now head into its offseason and get into the weight room to make sure next season’s group is ready to put together another run back to the championship. 

 “The goal is to get back here now that they’ve had a taste of it and you know what it takes to get back here,” Pelham said “It’s going to be difficult. … We’ve got to get back to a single-mindedness and in the weight room.”


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