As Dunbar’s football team left Cumberland after losing the season opener to Allegany over Labor Day weekend, the Poets vowed to overcome the setback and reach the state final.
“It motivated us in a big way,” junior Raekwon Walker said. “We lost (49-42). We said we weren’t going to lose again, so we came together, gained more chemistry and then we just won a lot of games.”
The No. 7 Poets won their 11th straight and earned a trip to the state Class 1A final with Saturday afternoon’s 52-27 victory over Havre de Grace at Dunbar’s William F. “Sugar” Cain Field in East Baltimore.
Walker, a junior receiver and cornerback, helped set the tone for the state semifinal early.
He caught a 24-yard touchdown pass from quarterback Jared Lewis on the first drive of the game and had two interceptions late in the second quarter to help the Poets build an 18-0 halftime lead as they rolled into the title game for the first time in three years.
The past two years, the Poets lost in the Class 2A state semifinals, but now they’re headed to Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium in Annapolis for Saturday’s 3:30 p.m. clash with four-time defending 1A champion Fort Hill.
Two of the most successful programs in state tournament history, Dunbar (11-1) and Fort Hill (12-1) have combined to win 11 Class 1A championships since 2004. Dunbar won seven of them.
Coach Lawrence Smith’s Poets have a state-record 55 playoff wins as well as nine championships. Fort Hill, which needed overtime to beat Lackey in Friday night’s semifinal, has 51 playoff wins and six state championships. With a victory next weekend, the Sentinels would set the record for the most consecutive titles in tournament history.
For the moment, however, the Poets are savoring this victory.
“It’s amazing,” Walker said. “I can’t stop smiling, especially to go with this team here. We’ve got so much chemistry together. We work hard together. We’re like one big happy family.”
Lewis, who was 15-for-26 for 268 yards with two interceptions, threw for three touchdowns to three different receivers — Walker, Shaun Tolbert and Malik McCormick. Alfonzo Graham ran 12 times for 191 yards and two touchdowns and Andre Brandon ran 12 times for 105 yards and two touchdowns.
“We’ve just been unstoppable lately,” Lewis said. “That early touchdown kind of set the momentum for the game. It showed that we weren’t playing with these guys. We were ready to play.”
Havre de Grace (11-2), a state finalist in 2015 and 2016, struggled to move the ball early and could not take advantage of two Dunbar turnovers in the first half. Dunbar was quick to pressure Warriors junior quarterback Alex Gresock, especially in the first half, and he was called for intentional grounding when the Poets had him wrapped up in the end zone. The safety gave Dunbar a 10-0 lead in the first three minutes.
“They were flying to the ball. They were a lot faster than us today, a lot more physical than us,” Warriors coach Brian Eberhardt said, “and it seemed like every time we started to ebb that tide, that offense would come back and answer every time we started to make a little run. We just could never get over the hump today.”
In the second half, the Warriors started moving the ball on the opening drive, going 61 yards for a touchdown as Gresock hit Jordan White with a 12-yard pass to cut the lead to 18-7.
About a minute and a half later, however, Graham raced 41 yards for a Dunbar touchdown. The conversion pass from Lewis to Brandon boosted Dunbar’s lead to 26-7. With 3:04 left in the quarter, the Poets struck again on Brandon’s 5-yard touchdown run and Lewis ran in the conversion for a 34-7 lead.
The Warriors’ Sean Greeley answered with a 15-yard touchdown run and Clay Harris’ extra point cut Dunbar’s lead to 34-14 with 58 seconds left in the third quarter. Harris’ ensuing touchback pinned the Poets at their 20-yard line, but it didn’t matter. Graham took the first handoff and raced 80 yards to the end zone just 13 seconds later for a 40-14 lead.
Dunbar turned the ball over twice in the second half, too, and Brandon Rabbitt took a fumble recovery 62 yards for a touchdown to cut the lead to 40-21 with five minutes left in the game, but once again the Poets made up the difference in a hurry.
Three plays into their next Dunbar drive, Brandon took the handoff, ran right into a wall, scurried back to his left and then cut back across the field for a 45-yard touchdown less than two minutes after Rabbitt’s score to run the lead to 25.
H— 0 0 14 13 — 27
D—10 8 22 12 — 52
D—Walker 24 pass from Lewis (Tolbert pass from Lewis)
D—Tolbert 44 pass from Lewis (McCormick pass from Lewis)
H—White 12 pass from Gresock (Harris kick)
D—Graham 41 run (Brandon pass from Lewis)
D—Brandon 5 run (Lewis run)
H—Greeley 15 run (Harris kick)
D—Graham 80 run (run failed)
H—Rabbitt 62 fumble rec. (Harris kick)
D—Brandon 45 run (pass failed)
D—McCormick 71 pass from Lewis (run failed)
H—Jah.Stansbury 24 pass from Gresock