To Dunbar linebacker Shaun Tolbert, the Poets are more like family than a football team, and that’s been critical to their drive for a state title.
After losing in the state semifinals last season, the veterans bonded with a lot of newcomers from an undefeated junior varsity team during the summer, setting their sites on playing for the Class 1A title Dec. 2 at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium in Annapolis. That’s the goal every year in a Dunbar program with nine state titles and more playoff wins than any other team in state tournament history.
The Poets know that playing as a unit is the best way to make that happen. The word “family” comes up in almost every conversation about this team.
“We got close over the summer, doing activities outside of football. We’d go to the movies or go bowling, Dave & Buster’s, that kind of stuff,” said Tolbert, a senior. “After that game [the 12-7 semifinal loss to eventual champion Walkersville], it made everybody just want to go harder. We got that close and we came up short. All the juniors last year, we came together after and said, ‘We’ve got to go all the way this year and end it with a bang.’ ”
The No. 7 Poets (9-1) will meet Reginald Lewis (11-0) at Mervo on Friday at 6 p.m. for the Class 1A North region championship and the chance to move on to the state semifinals. The Falcons, whose loss to Overlea last week was overturned because Overlea used an ineligible player, are aiming for their first regional title while Dunbar goes for its 19th.
Coach Lawrence Smith said this team has the feel of the Dunbar teams that won seven state championships between 2004 and 2012. No one puts himself before the team.
“This team pushes each other just like the championship teams of the past,” Smith said. “They like each other. A lot of these guys are friends. They go out together, things like that, and that’s a big deal when you’re talking about these type of teams. I had a good feeling about this team during the summer and I just felt that’s what it was.”
One of the keys to putting this team together has been a nearly new offensive line of all juniors. The lone varsity veteran, Travis Johnson, joined Domenic Smith, Mark Missouri, Bakari Mack and Justyn Harris, all up from JV, to continue a Dunbar tradition of big, tough offensive lines.
Mack said it was an easy transition for the five to mesh into the starting unit.
Being friends “definitely helps,” Mack said. “We trust each other more. We know what we’re capable of as a group, as a unit. It helps us to perform on the field. It was easy for us to come together. It’s a family atmosphere, a lot of great guys on this team. It’s a fun group.”
To junior running back Andre Brandon, their play has been just what he and senior running back Alfonzo Graham need in front of them.
“They handle the job pretty well. I can’t do nothing without them,” Brandon said.
“I knew they weren’t bad at all, but I thought it was going to take a little while for them to click,” senior quarterback Jared Lewis said, “but as soon as they stepped out there, first game, it looked like they’d been there for years. We were able to execute on offense every game so far, putting up like 40 points a game.”
Brandon and Graham make a steady one-two punch as they’ve run for almost the same amount of yardage. Brandon has gained 845 yards on 98 carries with seven touchdowns while Graham has rushed for 825 yards on 71 carries with 12 touchdowns. In the 48-0 win over Chesapeake-BC in last week’s regional opener, they both carried the ball seven times. Brandon scored twice and Graham once. Junior Demond Jackson also ran for a touchdown.
Lewis, one of the area’s top quarterbacks, has also been a steady force with the line giving him time to throw for 2,536 yards and 22 touchdowns. Against Chesapeake, he was 14-for-19 for 313 yards with three touchdown passes to senior Ryan Wood and juniors Raekwon Walker and Malik McCormack.
In September, the Poets stumbled out of the block, dropping their season opener to Allegany in Cumberland, a game in which Smith said the defense didn’t show up. They rebounded the next week with a road win at Potomac and then ran the table in Baltimore City’s Division I.
Since that first game, the Poets have allowed just nine points per game. In addition to Tolbert’s team leading 54 tackles, junior defensive back Doshon Davis has 52. Senior lineman Dwayne Johnson has 10 sacks.
After the Poets beat defending division champion Mervo, 38-13, for the first time in four years in September, Mervo coach Patrick Nixon said he saw a difference in the Poets.
“One thing about this Dunbar team, they’re hungry,” Nixon said after that game. “They don’t have the big-name stars, but this is a group that won back-to-back JV championships and they play well together. They’ve had some level of success over the last few years, but not the level of success they’re used to having and I think that’s caused this team right here to be a little hungry. I think a lot of people counted them out early and I think they took that personally.”
“Last year was a little bit heartbreaking,” he said. “We were underdogs all the way through the playoffs, but we got that far, but this year we came out after our first game and won nine games in a row. People were sleeping on us last year, and I think they were a little bit this year. Right now, I’m not saying we’re top dogs, but we’re not underdogs. Everybody is coming for us.”