Dunbar, Southern line up with familiar look in their eyes Poets, Bulldogs have same look, goal

It comes as no surprise that both coaches are calling tonight's Class 2A football semifinal, Dunbar (9-2) at Southern (10-1), a toss-up.

That's the expected response from opposing coaches before a big game, but in this case, it's true, and tonight's 7:30 contest in Harwood should be a classic with the victor advancing to next weekend's state final at the University of Maryland's Byrd Stadium.


The outcome could be decided by "a mistake," said Southern coach Buck Gardner, or "by the line play," said Dunbar coach Stan Mitchell.

Then, again with all things being equal, one of those intangibles that give a team an inner strength and advantage could be the difference.


"I agree that we're pretty even in speed and in a lot of ways," said Gardner, who is completing his 20th year as coach of the Dawgs.

"It could come down to a mistake. The team that makes one late could end up on the short end."

Mitchell, the Poets' rookie coach, said his team "matches up well with [Southern's] speed," but "their line scares me to death."

Both teams got to see each other win last weekend in the state quarterfinals with Dunbar posting a 22-10 victory at Overlea (10-1) Friday, and Southern a 14-12 thriller at Potomac (9-2) Saturday.

It was perfect for scouting purposes as both coaches and their staffs came away marveling at the similarities between the two teams.

The two teams do match up well in speed and overall size and numbers. Neither brings an army of 40 or more onto the field, and most of the starters on both teams go both ways.

Dunbar dresses about 25 players, although top running back Johnny Sawyer (15 touchdowns) and outside linebacker Nathan Brown are questionable because of injuries sustained in the Overlea game.

Southern will suit up close to 30 players, including two-way back and speed demon Jamar Mullen, who suffered a mild concussion in the Potomac game and missed most of the second half.


"Jamar had headaches on Sunday, but is OK to play and overall we were fortunate to come out of the Potomac game in pretty good shape after getting knocked around," said Gardner, whose team was outweighed by about 70 pounds a man on the interior line.

Dunbar has one huge lineman in senior Derrick Player, who is 6 feet 5 and 300 pounds, but the rest of its line is equal to Southern's in size.

The Southern interior line is anchored by guard Austin Smith and tackle Jason Hahn, both seniors. On the other side of the ball, Smith and Chris Sutherland are solid as down linemen, outstanding are Jason Poknis at defensive end, linebacker Joe Kadjeski and Wayne Small in the secondary with Corey Contee and Mullen.

"They [Dunbar] only gave up 52 points in their league games in Baltimore, and we gave up 55, so the defenses are pretty even," said Gardner.

Mitchell was impressed with the way the much-smaller Southern linemen mixed it up with the Potomac team and didn't back down an inch. Ditto for Gardner's assessment of Dunbar, who he said "jumped on Overlea early," and "took control of the game."

"We have a lot of players banged up from the Overlea game, but we stress conditioning and are used to getting beat up bad," said Mitchell.


There is a glaring difference in size at quarterback with Dunbar's Rodney Elliott standing 6-7 and Southern's Joe McCafferty only 5-10. But despite the height difference, Elliott and McCafferty (19 touchdown passes) produce the same results -- putting points on the board.

While Dunbar boasts Sawyer, Southern has the speedy and shifty Contee, who led the county in scoring with 119 points (15 touchdowns); Mullen (15 touchdowns), whose 4.3-second speed in the 60 makes him a threat from anywhere on the field; and Poknis, who uses his 6-foot, 185-pound frame to get the tough yards inside.

"Southern is very fundamentally sound, very disciplined and does all the little things," said Mitchell, who sounded like Gardner analyzing the Poets.

This is Southern's first football playoff appearance and something that Gardner said "may never happen again." The 14 seniors on this team have been through a lot together.

"It's been four years of hard work, and they left everything they had on the field [Saturday against Potomac]," said defensive coordinator and assistant head coach Jeff Cranford, who once played for Gardner at Southern before playing on Salisbury State's national champion in 1986.

Cranford's screaming and hollering along the Southern sideline is quite a contrast to the laid-back style of Gardner, but their purpose is the same. It's a purpose that has the Southern team on a mission.