Dunbar's injury problems began long before the season's first kickoff.

Starting middle linebacker Demonte Jones tore an anterior cruciate ligament during the summer and was lost for the season. Next, linebacker Aaron Savage suffered the same season-ending knee injury.

Top running back Coleman Blackston then had a bad high-ankle sprain. Lineman Raymond Jackson sprained an ankle. Another lineman, Jabari Whyee, twisted his knee. Blackston, Jackson and Whyee each missed several weeks.

"I have never, ever dealt with injuries the way I've dealt with them this year," Dunbar coach Lawrence Smith said. "During [preseason] practice, we kept getting a few ankles turned and we never had a full roster at any game."

The season-ending injuries, combined with a host of sprains, twists and tweaks can make it difficult for a high school football team to reach its goal of a state championship. They've been particularly challenging for three teams that won or got close to titles last year.

In addition to the Poets, who won three straight Class 1A titles and seven of the last nine before moving up to 2A this fall, injuries have also stricken potential title contenders River Hill and Meade.

River Hill coach Brian Van Deusen, whose team won the past two Class 3A state championships, never has had so many injuries in 14 seasons with the Hawks. Meade, a Class 4A state semifinalist last year, also had a bunch of starters sidelined for a handful of games, including its quarterback and top running back.

To Dr. William Howard, Dunbar's team doctor and a longtime sports medicine specialist now in private practice in Baltimore, there's a simple explanation for the profusion of injuries: bad luck.

"I really do think it's just chance," Howard said. "And I say that because, first of all, these kids are in great shape. They're well-conditioned. And they have superb coaching, so it's not because of any weakness there. For Dunbar, I think it's just a bad-luck year."

Most of the players with sprains or nagging injuries have returned, but none of the three teams is completely healthy heading into Friday's regional championship games. All three teams are 9-2, and none earned the No. 1 seed in its region.

Dunbar was upset by Edmondson three weeks ago, and River Hill has been beaten twice since Oct. 18, by Hammond and Howard. Those losses cost the Poets and the Hawks valuable playoff points, and if the Poets get past Patterson and River Hill beats Reservoir in their regional finals Friday night, both will almost certainly hit the road for the state semifinals after hosting semifinal games last season.

Whether injuries made the difference in those losses is debatable, but the coaches are pleased just to be playing at this point.

Meade lost 1,700-yard rusher Kyle Evans for most of three games with a sprained ankle, while River Hill had even more trouble keeping the backfield healthy.

"We've really exceeded expectations because I don't care who you are, no high school football team is that deep," Smith said. "We were down to our fourth running back at one time."

So was River Hill.

At River Hill, halfback Chris Galloway had a stress fracture in his ankle, halfback Aiden Gelb tore an ACL and fullback Kalonji Moore has a nagging hip problem. The Hawks' best lineman, Logan Kirby, missed a game with a separated shoulder.

"It's not only a key spot, but it seemed to happen all at the same time," Van Deusan said of the running back injuries. "We played a couple games with our fourth, fifth and sixth running backs, backup running backs in all three spots. And we had another running back, Tre Patterson, who missed two games."

The Hawks were especially hurt when two-way starters were forced to the sideline.

"We don't like to have a lot of two-way starters," Van Deusen said. "I think we have five of them and four were guys who were injured. When you start losing a two-way player, now you have to look at two guys to replace him, and we don't have as much depth as some other years, and that's kind of hurt us along the way."

As a bigger 4A school, Meade has a larger roster than Dunbar or River Hill, but the Mustangs' injuries have hurt just as much. Like Smith and Van Deusen, Mustangs coach Rich Holzer brought players up from junior varsity to fill holes.