For the last couple months, Dunbar athletes have been keeping an eye on the renovation of their football field, hoping they would get to play a few games there this fall.
"They think it's Christmas," Poets football coach Lawrence Smith said of the anticipation when the players found out the lighted field would be ready for their homecoming game Friday night against Carver.
"I just think it's magical. It's going to be electric here Friday night," Smith said.
Poets junior running back Coleman Blackston eagerly monitored the final weeks of construction.
"We were all looking at it like, 'When are they going to stop, when are they going to do this, when are they going to do such-and-such?" Blackston said, "but the first time we saw the field goal posts, we were like, 'Yeah, they're getting ready to finish this.' My whole team was excited and it has everyone excited around the school and around the neighborhood. Everybody's talking about how it really looks nice."
The new FieldTurf playing surface is surrounded by a refurbished track, and capped with a state-of-the-art scoreboard. All were provided by Under Armour, whose officials selected Dunbar as the first "WIN Baltimore" recipient and also provided the school with two upgraded computer labs among other projects.
But the most visible upgrade is the field between Madison and Monument streets, a block north of the East Baltimore school. It's now a fitting home for a football program that has won eight state championships, including two in a row and six of the last eight Class 1A titles.
The Poets had been playing most of their home games, including their playoff games, at Poly's lighted artificial turf field.
"Now we can be at home for the playoffs," said Smith, whose 7-1 Poets are in first place in the Class 1A South region, "and if we keep doing what we're doing, we'll have home-field advantage. Now, we can say the state championship will definitely come through Dunbar because everyone will have to come through this hostile environment."
For Smith, one of the key perks of having lights is being able to practice later. The Poets, who began practicing on the new field Tuesday, spend two hours in study hall after school, so they don't start practice until 4 p.m. Practicing at nearby City Springs Park or McKim Park left them with little daylight as the fall wore on.
Blackston said it felt great to finally step onto the field Tuesday afternoon.
"It's wonderful, because what we were playing on before was not as pretty as this one and I kind of think it makes me feel a little faster," he said.
The football players aren't the only ones who will host a playoff game on the new field. The first-year girls soccer team will play in the regional quarterfinal against Forestville there Tuesday at 4 p.m.
"For me as an AD, this is definitely bigger than football," Dunbar athletic director Dana Johnson said. "It's going to be a wonderful thing for our girls soccer team to get to play at home."
The boys lacrosse team also will play there in the spring, and Johnson hopes to add boys soccer and girls lacrosse.
"We're trying to building our programs and this field is definitely going to be utilized," Johnson said. "It's going to be great to have those non-traditional sports, and I think a field like this will motivate more of the kids to come out and play."
Johnson said the field also will be used for physical education classes. Surrounded by a 9-foot fence, it will be locked when not in use, but Johnson said Under Armour CEO Kevin Plank wants the community to be able to use the track, so there are plans to open it to runners and walkers for a few hours every morning when it's not being used for classes.
A ribbon-cutting ceremony will be held at 10 a.m. Friday with Dunbar principal Kristina Kyles, Johnson and Smith along with city coordinator of athletics Bob Wade, Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, City Council president Jack Young, city councilman Carl Stokes and Plank.