Friendly rivalry leads No. 6 Dunbar into another 1A championship

For a couple of guys who are best friends, Dunbar defensive ends Marvin Gross and Malik Jones sure do argue a lot.

When they both get a hand on the opposing quarterback, they're each lobbying the Poets coaches for the sack.

"We're always going to argue that, 'I was there first,' every play," Gross said. "Last game, we both had 2 1/2 sacks and I think we argued to the point where the coaches just put the sack in both of our columns."

Both of their columns are filing up rapidly. Gross has 30 sacks this season. Jones has 15 1/2. That's in just 13 games.

They are two big reasons why the No. 6 Poets (12-1) have posted nine shutouts, have allowed just 23 points in their last 12 games and have a chance to win their third straight Class 1A state championship against New Town on Saturday at noon at M&T Bank Stadium.

The imposing pair presents quite a dilemma for any opponent. Trying to avoid the 6-foot-4, 201-pound, West Virginia-bound Gross with his speed and agility pushes the ball toward 6-5, 255-pound, Maryland-bound Jones and his strength and power.

"They can break down and stop the run and they also can rush the passer," Poets coach Lawrence Smith said. "They cause a lot of havoc on the other team's attack. They're so limber that they can change direction so fast, and they're so athletic, and that's a great plus for what they do at their positions."

In last week's 40-8 win over Brunswick in the state semifinals, the Poets defense grounded a Railroaders offense that had set five state passing records. In addition to their sacks, Gross had 11 tackles and Jones had seven.

Railroaders coach Patt Foster said when he coached at the 5A level in Georgia, a couple of his defensive ends went on to the NFL, but he had never seen the likes of Gross and Jones at the 1A level.

Their presence threw the Railroaders' prolific passing offense out of sync.

"They knock a couple [passes] down and you've got to change your trajectory a little bit and move in the pocket a little more than you're used to doing, and all of the sudden you're out of your game a little bit," Foster said. "They force you to do that and they're very good at it. That trajectory change can be a couple of inches and that can make it a couple of feet downfield and they're on top of the ball where normally we're catching it. They create a lot of havoc because of their size."

While Gross and Jones are both focused on winning the Poets' ninth state championship, they are always trying to one-up each other.

"It makes me play better because I know if I want to outdo him, I have to play my best all the time or I'm going to slip up and he's going to get ahead of me and I'm going to have to hear his mouth for a long time," Gross said with a laugh echoed by Jones.

Smith said the competitive nature between the two players is a healthy rivalry.

"They're really close friends. They're like cousins, so they push each other," Smith said. "They just thrive on that and that's the good thing for me, because I know their motor's going to keep running because they're so competitive with each other."

That doesn't mean they don't appreciate each other's best assets.

"I love his athleticism, and the way he comes off the ball," Jones said. "He's quick off the ball, so I'd like to have a little bit of that when I get to college."

To Gross, Jones' strength is what stands out.

"He's a lot stronger than me, so he uses his power rather than I use my speed," Gross said. "When we switch sides, the tackles don't know what to do. I think that's where the combo comes in on how we effectively get to the quarterback as a unit."

When they were playing football in rec leagues growing up — Gross at Northwood then Owings Mills, and Jones at Overlea and Middle River — they knew each other in passing, because their fathers, Marvin Gross Sr. and Michael Jones, were friends.

The boys got to know each other the summer before their freshman year when, by coincidence, their families took the same cruise to Cancun.

"He seemed like a really cool guy and he liked to have fun," Jones said. "We hung out, went swimming. The cruise ship had a basketball court, so we played a lot of basketball, one-on-one and sometimes pickup games with us against other people."

Gross said they had so much in common that Jones was like an instant brother. At Dunbar, they both moved up to the varsity together during their freshman year.

The competition that began on the ship's basketball court moved to the football field, as well as video games and anything else in which they can contend.

"We leave everything on the field as far as competing for sacks and everything like that," Gross said, "but it's like a sibling rivalry, so we compete at everything. Every time he comes over my house, we play 'NCAA' [football video game], and if I win one game, he wants to take me back for another one. One time, we were up til 1 o'clock in the morning. I don't want to say anything about who won, because he's just going to say he did."

The rivalry will take on an added dimension when they get to college where, for the first time, they will play on opposite sides. They've already come up with a way to preserve their friendship when the Maryland-West Virginia game approaches.

"We've already stated that during that week we won't be talking to each other," Jones said.

Class 1A state football championship: No. 6 Dunbar (12-1) vs. New Town (11-2)

When: Saturday, noon

TV: Ch. 54

Internet radio:

Where: M&T Bank Stadium

Coaches: Lawrence Smith, Dunbar; Joe Holland, New Town

Last meeting: None

Outlook: In this David vs. Goliath matchup, first-time state finalist New Town takes on one of the state's most successful playoff programs. The Poets are two-time defending champions, have won six of the past eight Class 1A titles and have won more playoff games (43) than any program in state tournament history. After falling to No. 4 Calvert Hall, 30-6, in the season opener, the Poets have allowed just 23 points and shut out nine opponents. The Titans, however, have worn the underdog label all season and have used it to their advantage. Before this fall, they had a 1-5 playoff record. They faced a loud wake-up call when they lost to Owings Mills, 19-18, in the regular-season finale, but they rolled through the regional playoffs and then nipped last year's state finalist, previously undefeated Perryville, 28-27, on the road in last week's semifinal. The Titans rely heavily on a running game led by RB Derrick Kittrell (127 carries, 1,286 yards, 19 TDs) and FL Donte' Gross (83 carries, 863 yards, 10 TD), but they can also pass the ball with QB Shawn Magginson (52-for-88 for 1,064 yards, 13 TDs, 4 INTs). The Poets are led by RB Coleman Blackston (188 carries, 1,653 yards, 15 TDs), who ran for 269 yards on 27 carries and scored two touchdowns in the 40-8 semifinal win over Brunswick. QB William Crest (94-for-145 for 714 yards, 12 TDs, 5 INTs) provides a pass option for the Poets, who are scheduled to move up to Class 2A next fall. While the Poets have considerable advantages in size and depth, as well as state playoff experience, they are also prone to penalties and turnovers, which could give the Titans an opening.

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