Minutes after Dunbar lost a heart-breaker to Western, LaKeisha Wills could not hold back the tears.
The emotion of a close game and missed chances overwhelmed the Poets' junior center. To Wills, this had been more than just a regular-season game.
"This was our chance," Wills said. "In school, all you hear is the boys, boys, boys. We thought by winning big games, especially beating a team like this, everybody might talk about us."
Wills' frustration after that 68-53 loss last month reflected the new attitude surrounding the Dunbar girls team. Long overshadowed by a boys basketball program that has grown to legendary proportions, the girls struggled with losing records for a decade.
Now, these Poets believe they can change all that -- and they're doing so.
The Poets are enjoying their best season. They cracked The Sun's Top 20 poll for the first time, rising as high as No. 12. Now at 18-3, they have settled at No. 14 and are second in the city only to No. 9 Western, a larger, Class 4A school, as they prepare for next week's Class 2A regional playoffs.
That's a long way from the team that went 2-14 just three seasons ago.
Senior Connie Simms, a four-year veteran, has lived the transition.
"We already knew that the boys get everything, but we never looked at it like we should work harder to get what the boys get," said Simms of her first two years on the varsity. "Now, we're working hard. We're getting more publicity and more achievements, and now, it's not only about the boys at Dunbar, it's about the girls, too."
Freshman Toni Kennedy said the Dunbar student body has begun to notice.
"We have more people coming to the games, coming to different schools to see us play," said Kennedy. "It's a real big step for us."
Simms said even the Dunbar boys, ranked No. 2 by The Sun, have become supportive.
"Before it was like, 'Girls team? They're going to lose again,' " said Simms, "but now they're like, 'You're all working hard. You're all doing just as good as us.' They're giving us more respect now, because they see we're working hard to get where they are."
Not that the Dunbar girls program has never known any success. Although the Poets have not won a city title, they were competitive in the early 1980s.
Jennifer Jones posted winning records in the first eight years of a coaching stint that lasted from 1979-1993. The Poets even made it to the city title game twice.
Even so, the girls received little attention. While the Dunbar boys were traveling to tournaments as far away as Hawaii, the girls didn't have basketball shoes and wore hand-me-down boys uniforms.
Jones and some of her former players said they felt the girls deserved better, but they did not dwell on what they didn't have.
"We really weren't into whether or not we had shoes or whether we looked good," said 1980 graduate Wanda Richardson, now an assistant coach at Johns Hopkins. "We just went about doing what we had to do. We had fun."
Carolyn Allen, a 1982 graduate, agreed.
"It was just great to be part of the tradition ourselves," said Allen, who remembered a trip to Camden, N.J., to watch the boys team play. "At the same time, we knew we put out 110 percent. We didn't have anything to hang our heads about."
While the boys won mythical national titles in 1982-83, 1984-85 and 1991-92, the girls could not get past Breezy Bishop's Western Doves for a city title.
"Breezy's team traveled, and the girls went there because they wanted to travel," said Jones, who now teaches at Garrison Middle School. "We didn't have that kind of budget. It was frustrating, because I felt if we had just a little of it, we could have drawn girls here."
Keeping the wealth of East Baltimore talent at Dunbar has been one of the biggest challenges in building a competitive girls team. Finding a top-notch coach to replace Jones was another.
About five years ago, several Poets girls approached principal Charlotte Wing about the coaching situation.
"They asked if we could find a good coach and put more emphasis on the girls team," said Wing, "but it takes time to find someone who is eligible and who is willing to spend that time. It takes more than just coaching. They have to be willing to put in a lot of time and devotion, because they are mentors to these students."
Three years ago, Wing found exactly the qualities she was looking for in Wardell Selby, who has coached girls for more than 20 years in recreation, the Baltimore Neighborhood Basketball League, the Amateur Athletic Union, and as an assistant at Morgan State.
Selby has been able to keep the girls at home, because many have played recreation ball for him for years.
"Most of the good players had gone other places," said Selby. "They want the good education, but most of them go to the school because of the basketball. They would go to Western or St. Frances and bypass Dunbar, because it was only known for boys basketball."
The Poets have several players who played elsewhere, including Wills, who started her career at St. Frances. Kennedy considered City and Western. Fellow freshman hot-shot Tiffany Jones nearly chose nearby St. Frances.
All three gave the same primary reason for choosing Dunbar -- Selby. All had played for him before.
"The girls flock to him," said Richardson, who played AAU ball for Selby. "Everybody likes to win, and they know he's going to have a winning program."
Selby has brought stability to a team that had three coaches in the four seasons before he arrived.
The Poets had a combined record of 20-52 in the five seasons before Selby. They were 2-14 in 1995-96. But since Selby took over in late 1996, the Poets are 42-21. Their 16-7 finish last season was the team's first winning record since 1987-88.
The turnaround was no surprise to Selby's peers.
"I knew when he got the job, it was just a matter of time before he would turn that program around and make it the dominant program in the city," said James Monroe, the Lake Clifton girls coach for the past 10 years. "We used to go down there and beat them by 100, and the last three years we've lost by 1, 2 and 5 points.
"He does a lot for the girls. He's gotten them uniforms, and they've got that confidence now. When you're dealing with the girls, you've got to give them something, because the boys get everything. He makes sure the girls get just as much as the boys."
The Dunbar girls now see their team as a family. They all call Selby, who has five sons, a father figure. They call Simms, the four-year veteran, "Team Mom." Together, they have worked through the loss to Western and a potentially disastrous upset vs. City.
"We had tough times," said Wills. "We had big losses, upsets, but we stayed together as a family. After the Western loss, we kind of drifted apart, and after the City loss, we had a meeting, and that brought us back together."
However, the best motivator still seems to be the boys' success. The girls can't escape the reminders. Every day, they practice in a gym dominated by three huge national championship banners on one wall and a row of 18 Maryland Scholastic Association championship banners strung across the opposite wall.
The banners don't bother Selby.
"With the tradition of the boys winning all the time, that gives us something to shoot for," said Selby. "Rather than complaining, we can go out and try to win a city title and try to win a state title. Then we can put a banner up there, too."
The girls begin the quest for their own banner when they and Dunbar's boys travel to Wicomico High in Salisbury for a doubleheader Monday. The girls are focused on winning their Class 2A East region title and advancing to the state tournament for the first time.
No matter what happens in the next two weeks, the Poets girls still will finish with their best record in the school's history. More than anyone else, Simms can appreciate the significance of that milestone, even if no regional or state title accompanies it.
"I know where we were at before," said Simms, "and to look at where we're at now, we have come a long way. With most of the team being freshmen and sophomores, they're not seeing where I came from. Even when they do bad things, I'm the one pumping them up, telling them they can do better, or telling them it's all right.
"Because I know how it felt to be at the dirt bottom and then work our way up."
Pub Date: 2/26/99