At the end of every Poly football practice, the Engineers turn to the east, facing their archrival school and shout, "Beat City." The rest of the time, the word City is barely uttered, rendering it a Voldemortish adversary that must not be named.
At City, the Knights have no such rituals, but you can bet the feelings are exactly the same.
During this week leading up to the annual City-Poly game, pep rallies and other festivities whip the players, fans and alumni into a partisan frenzy that will erupt in a high-noon showdown Saturday at M&T Bank Stadium. No matter what else happens this fall, both teams — and their followers — will measure the football season by the outcome of this game.
It has been that way for 123 years.
The showdown between City and Poly is believed to be the second-longest continual public school football rivalry in the country after Boston Latin vs. English High in Massachusetts, which began in 1887, two years before City-Poly. The game was a Thanksgiving Day staple until Baltimore City joined the state association in 1993 and it was moved to the final Saturday of the regular season.
As far back as anyone can remember, it has been the game that makes or breaks a season.
"The second year I was at Poly, I guess we were favored and they upset us," Poly coach Roger Wrenn said. "Some people at our banquet said, 'Oh, you all had a great year,' and one of the alumni said, 'They had a good year. You can't have a great year unless you win the last game.' "
This year, the No. 5 Engineers, who have won three straight times over City, come into Saturday's game with a 9-0 record and are heavy favorites, but that doesn't mean a lot to the Knights, who are 5-3.
"I doubt if we've been favored in very many games," said City coach George Petrides, who also played for the Knights. "We've won games that we haven't been favored in. I go back to my junior year when we played Poly and they were undefeated and we were undefeated. They were favored, and they just fell apart. We beat them pretty badly, so records really don't mean a lot."
Petrides has coached the Knights for 36 years and started his career two years earlier as a City assistant coach on a staff that included Wrenn. Wrenn moved on to Patterson in 1974 and took over at Poly in 2006.
Even though Wrenn hasn't been on the sideline for many years of City-Poly, he is fully steeped in its tradition.
"We both take this extremely seriously," Wrenn said. "The records really do go out the window, because there's just so much emotion involved in this game that anything can happen and often does. It's a huge crowd, playing at Ravens' stadium and all the alumni stream into those schools throughout the day all of this week. Athletic directors don't have a minute to sit down, because people are coming in to buy tickets and "How are you?" and "I played in '65" and "In '74, we did this" and on and on and on."
This game might include more emotion than usual because Wrenn will retire after this season. The Engineers hope to send him out with a state title, but they would perhaps rather send him out with their fourth straight win over the Knights.
For City, senior quarterback Steffen Wilkens aims to lead the Knights to victory after having to sit out last season with an injury. Poly's marquee player, cornerback Donovan Riley, leads a small but stingy defense looking to finish off a perfect regular season.
While the Engineers hold a slight edge in the series, 61-55-6, the teams have split their past six meetings with the Knights, winning three straight before Poly started its latest run.
Perhaps the biggest challenge for the coaches, with their combined 73 years of head coaching experience in the city, is trying to keep the players' feet on the ground through weeklong activities geared toward the big game.
"You've just got to keep preaching to them to concentrate on what we're here for," Petrides said. "It is hard, but you've just got to keep reminding them."
Thursday, the teams practiced at M&T Bank Stadium and Friday each school had a pep rally to hype the game. After that, it's up to the players and the coaches.
"It'll be a little bit of a chess match," Wrenn said. "We always try to do something a little bit different to try to throw the scouting report off. Both teams have some really special players. It depends on which team gets the ball in those guys' hands, and often in these games it's an unlikely hero that comes through."