Mustangs had extra incentive

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GRANITEVILLE, S.C. --- The Midland Valley football team took such delight shaving the mustache of assistant coach Marty Harper following its biggest win of this season, Rick Knight figured he had nothing to lose.

Win the region, the Mustangs' 10-year coach told his players, and they could wield the shears in front of his mustache, the one he hadn't shaved since 1979.

A little more than a month later, at a school-wide pep rally, Knight's son, Chris, a junior on the team, held an electric trimmer in front of his father's face, wiping his whiskers away.

Someone snapped a photo of the scene, and it's now on display in Knight's house, a light reminder of the season Midland Valley captured its first region title since 2002. For leading the Mustangs to their fourth region title in his 10 seasons, Knight is The Augusta Chronicle South Carolina Coach of the Year.

Midland Valley, pummeled in its opener against North Augusta and losers of three of its first five games, won six in a row late in the season. A double-overtime home win over region favorite Airport --- the game after which coach Harper lost his mustache --- started the streak and turned Midland Valley's year around.

"No question," Knight said.

Said South Aiken coach Robert Wrighten-berry, "I'm not going to say (the region) was surprised Midland Valley won ... I think we just all assumed Airport would be on top."

Knight assumed nothing entering the season.

Five assistant coaches didn't return from the previous year, and this year's team was coached by a small core. Four assistants, just two of which were full-time, helped Knight coach the team.

What's more, the team's secondary coach, baseball coach Bruce Zuehlke, left the team the Tuesday before its season opener, Knight said, and was later arrested and charged with two counts of obtaining property by false pretenses.

"A lot of adversity early," Knight said.

Knight has coached Midland Valley since shortly before the team's fourth game in 1999. The Mustangs won the region title his first two years and again in 2002.

"If you told them we would win the region three out of four years, they'd probably say we want you (to coach) forever," Knight said. "Well, we did that, but we couldn't beat North Augusta or Aiken.

"Demand was pretty high. I could have gone a lot of places."

Instead, Knight stuck around, enduring the lean years, like when the Mustangs went 1-9 in 2004 and 2005.

After the last one-win season, a petition circulated around the area. It called for Knight and his staff to be replaced.

Knight's teams have since made three consecutive playoff appearances, and Knight still carries around a copy of the petition.

"I just have it with me, because -- a parent asked me that not too long ago, too -- they don't understand the impact it had on my children," Knight said.

Said his wife, Debbie, "I just think sometimes he just sort of needs a reminder how much things have changed. ... It was a tumultuous time for our family. But we had very, very good friends that stepped in and were so great in supporting our family."

Knight has since regrown his mustache. The circumstances of its loss, of course, continue to please him.

"Whatever motivates them ... we'll do anything to win except cheat," Knight said. "The kids had to adapt to a lot of things this year. I'm proud of them."

Reach Matt Middleton at (706) 823-3425 or matt.middleton@augustachronicle.com.

OF NOTE


Coach School Comment
Dwayne Garrick Williston-Elko Took team to state title game in second year
Dave Berry Blackville-Hilda Followed up state title with unbeaten regular season
Lee Sawyer Strom Thurmond Rebels essentially dominated first 12 opponents


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