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Dunbar enters title game as city team on a mission

Tommy Polley is a quiet young man. In fact, he seems downright humble, considering he may be the best all-around athlete in the city.

"He's all-universe," said Anthony Wiggins, the quarterback of Dunbar High School's football squad and a teammate of Polley, who plays tight end and onebacker. Oh, did I mention Polley also is a starter on Dunbar's basketball team, perennially ranked as one of the best in the country?

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At 7 o'clock tonight, Polley, Wiggins and 27 teammates will take the field at the University of Maryland's Byrd Stadium to try to knock off Churchill of Montgomery County. The Poets are going for their second straight state title. But win or lose, they have once again upheld the pride of city athletic teams.

This week, Polley, Wiggins, Deon Johnson and Dwayne Green sat in Assistant Coach Ben Eaton's office to discuss the team's mission, making the championship game for a second straight year.

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"It feels good," Polley said.

"We accomplished something most city teams haven't done and will not do," added Wiggins. Johnson -- an offensive and defensive tackle -- said the team knew it would make history last year, when it became the first city school to win a Maryland Public Secondary Schools Athletic Association (MPSSAA) championship in football.

"A lot of people didn't think we had it last year," Johnson said. "They didn't think we'd have it this year."

Of course, Dunbar already had made history. In 1993, Dunbar was the first city school to win an MPSSAA championship of any kind when the Poets' basketball team won the 1A championship game by beating Cambridge-South Dorchester. The irony of the success of both the football and basketball teams is that Dunbar, initially, was the only city school that resisted joining the MPSSAA.

The move led to the dismantling of the old MSA -- Maryland Scholastic Association. Somehow, Poets' fans must have felt, as I did, that joining the MPSSAA would lead to the demise of the MSA, kill off old and cherished rivalries while creating no new ones.

Joining the MPSSAA was the brainchild of School Superintendent Walter Amprey, who has since mercifully confined his ideas to academic matters. He should personally attend tonight's game and smooch the foot of every Dunbar player, since -- except for basketball and Mervo's long-overdue track championship this past May -- it is Dunbar athletes and Dunbar athletes alone who are making the move to the MPSSAA look good.

Take, for example, wrestling -- a sport at which city public schools are just gawd-awful. Only four wrestlers have placed as high as second in the MPSSAA tournament. You may have guessed by now that three of them were from Dunbar. In 1993, with only six wrestlers on the team (wrestling squads have 13 weight classes), Dunbar placed eighth in the MPSSAA tournament -- the highest for a city school so far.

Such odds are nothing new for Dunbar. Only 300 boys attend the school of 1,200 students. Coach Stanley Mitchell had to bring up six players from the junior varsity squad to add to the 23 on the varsity -- who will face a Churchill team of about 60 players tonight.

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And lest we forget, in the mid-1980s and early 1990s -- when the Colts had bolted for Indianapolis and the Orioles reached new lows in futility -- the Dunbar's boys basketball team was our only source of pride, winning national championships in 1983, 1985 and 1992. (Some would add Dunbar's 1982 team -- which would send four players to the pros -- to that list, but the cognitively challenged still insist Calvert Hall had a better basketball team that year.)

Charlotte Wing Brown, Dunbar's principal, said she is "ecstatic" about the football team's success.

"These young men are small in number and powerful academically and on the football field," Ms. Brown said. The players consider education as their top priority, Ms. Brown said, and Johnson seconded her in a separate and independent interview.

"They cracked down on us a lot about our grades," Johnson said. "After each game and practice they beat into us the importance of grades. Grades are first here at Dunbar."

But you'll forgive the 29 young men on this team if they abandon any thoughts of grades for 48 minutes tonight, when they'll be about the business of upholding the city's pride.

"Last year we overcame the stereotype that city schools couldn't play football," said Green, who, like Johnson, is an offensive and defensive tackle. "Now I classify us as the best team in the city and probably the state."

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Gregory P. Kane's column appears on Wednesdays and Saturdays.



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