For the two Baltimore teams that reached the state high school football finals last season, there’s always one ultimate goal — to bring home that title.
Class 1A champion Dunbar and Class 3A runner-up Milford Mill returned to the field Wednesday on the first day of fall sports practice for Maryland public school teams knowing exactly where they want to be on the final weekend of the season.
“We need rings coming out of here,” said Milford Mill senior linebacker Kevin Neal.
“Put a ring on both hands,” said Dunbar senior lineman Domenic Smith.
Last fall, the Poets (12-1) knocked off four-time defending champion Fort Hill, 30-26, to win their 10th title as they improved their state record for playoff wins to 56. Since 2004, Dunbar has won eight state championships, all in Class 1A, although the Poets have previous titles in 3A and 2A.
“Every year we talk about how that’s the goal,” Dunbar coach Lawrence Smith said. “The first year we ever won the championship, I remember sitting up at Poly at the concession stand talking to [former Patterson and Poly coach] Roger Wrenn about how hard it is to repeat. Last year, everyone was young and we came through and won the city, region and states. I told them this year we’re not going to sneak up on anyone. That’s what we’ve been talking about all offseason. I think they understand what has to happen.”
The Millers, who won their only state title when coach Reggie White was on the team in 1987, fell to Linganore, 28-27, in the 3A final. They finished 12-2 and won the Baltimore County Division I championship.
“County. Region. States. Those are always going to be the goals,” White said, “and I tell the team, if you don’t have the same goals as me, you need to get out of my system. I don’t need you. We have to be on the same page. … Team first. Team first. Team first.”
Even though the players think about those rings, Neal, Smith and their teammates are more focused on all the work they have to do to reach the title games the weekend of Nov. 30 and Dec. 1. at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium in Annapolis.
Dunbar and Milford Mill both have key positions to fill and a lot of promising talent that should keep them among the area’s most competitive programs. For White, however, that’s just part of the battle.
“Since I’ve been coaching, the first thing I say is, ‘Last year is last year. Last year is gone,” White said. “If you went 1-9, last year’s behind you. We went 12-2 last year, but last year’s behind us. This is a different team. We lost some things and gained some things, so we have to create our own identity. The 2017 team had its identity, but what’s going to be our identity for 18?”
Dunbar receiver Doshon Davis said it’s all about building what the Poets had last season.
“Brotherhood. Chemistry. We can’t preach that enough,” Davis said. “Team chemistry going to take us a long way this year and us as leaders. We got to lead the team to the promised land, which is one goal, state championship, at the end of the day.”
The Poets have critical skill positions to fill after graduating 13 players, including their quarterback and a key running back and wide receiver. However, their entire starting offensive line returns — Domenic Smith, Travis Johnson, Justyn Harris, Mark Missouri and Bakari Mack — a tremendous advantage, said Lawrence Smith.
They also bring back a 1,000-yard rusher in Andre Brandon and an 800-yard receiver in Raekwon Walker. A battle for the quarterback spot is shaping up between last year’s backup Lamar Simpson and junior varsity veteran Derek Dunn, whom Smith said has a “rocket of an arm.”
The Millers bring back several key players including All-Metro athlete Desmond Shell, one of the fastest players in the Baltimore area with over 2,000 all-purpose yards last fall, and linebacker Neal, but they graduated 22 players and need to rebuild at some of the skill positions and on the line.
Sophomore Rishon Holmes could be on the verge of a breakout season at quarterback while White also looks for a big year from senior tight end/safety Octavius Strong and some of his new linemen.
Neal said, despite the big turnover turnover, this Millers team still has chemistry.
“I feel like the talent is even better than last year,” Neal said. “We didn’t fall short at all as far as any player… The talent’s still here. We had a lot of young people… We got some newcomers too.”
Said Shell, “We’re looking forward to a great season back at the big stage.”