When Dunbar and Fort Hill kick off Saturday afternoon for the Class 1A state football championship, they will meet for the sixth time in the playoffs — not enough for a true rivalry, but enough to add a little extra edge to the title clash for high school football fans.
When two of the most successful programs in state tournament history meet, it can’t help but add to the state championship hype — even if their six meetings have been spread out over 24 years.
Dunbar, from East Baltimore, has won nine championships and Fort Hill, from Cumberland, has won six. The Sentinels swept the past four 1A titles and Dunbar won seven of nine from 2004 to 2012.
They now have 25 combined state final appearances, including Saturday’s 3:30 p.m. showdown at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium in Annapolis.
“I think it’s kind of neat in the sense that Dunbar and Fort Hill have won the last seven state 1A championships,” said Andy Warner, the executive director of the Maryland Public Secondary Schools Athletic Association. “So for those two to meet after Dunbar participated in the Class 2A the last [four] years, it’s kind of one of those neat occurrences that you look for in the state championships and a matchup that really is something to get excited about.”
For the players, however, a particular opponent can’t really add to their excitement.
“Naturally when it’s Fort Hill and Dunbar and it’s the sixth time we’ve played in the playoffs, a lot of folks look at it as a rivalry and things like that,” Dunbar coach Lawrence Smith said. “I know coach [Todd] Appel real well and I probably talk to coach Appel at least five, six times a season, but when you get to this time of the season, the kids are just so hepped up to play in the state championship game, they really don’t care who they play.”
The Poets and the Sentinels haven’t played since 2010, so the players on this year’s teams have never met on the field. The last time they played, Dunbar won a 1A semifinal, 20-14, en route to winning the championship.
Dunbar has a 4-1 advantage in the series, beating Fort Hill for the 2006 and 2008 1A titles and the 1994 2A title. The Sentinels beat the Poets for the 1997 2A championship. The closest game between the two was the 2008 championship when Tavon Austin, who still holds the state career record for rushing yards and now plays for the Los Angeles Rams, ran for a two-point conversion with two seconds left for a 20-19 Poets victory.
Smith and Appel have a lot in common. Both played football for their respective programs and both are in their 10th season as head coach. Smith has 119 career wins and Appel has118.
They’ve carried on traditions that continue to rack up playoff wins. The Poets hold the state record for most playoff victories (55) while the Sentinels have 51. Only two other programs have more than 40, Damascus (49) and Seneca Valley (43). While Seneca Valley has the record for most state championships with 12, the Poets are tied for second at nine with 2A finalist Damascus.
The number of playoff wins is impressive for both teams, but particularly for Dunbar, which came to the party 20 years later than Fort Hill. The Sentinels qualified for the first MPSSAA championship in 1974 when the tournament included only state semifinals and finals — it expanded to include quarterfinals in 1985. The current regional playoff format began in 2003.
The Poets didn’t earn their first playoff win until 1993, the first year Baltimore City teams played in the MPSSAA. They reached the state semifinals in 1993 and won their first football title a year later, three seasons after Smith graduated from Dunbar.
“It means a lot,” Smith said of the state record for playoff wins. “Those kinds of things are just blessings.”