It has been more than a month since a slight shoulder separation sidelined Anthony Preston for two weeks. But to the Joppatowne quarterback, watching his team lose a game without him added insult to injury.
"It was depressing," said Preston, 18, who has averaged more than 100 yards rushing in three playoff games since returning. "I worked really hard to get back. I feel like I'm 100 percent."
Tomorrow at M&T; Bank Stadium, Preston will lead the No. 7 Mariners (11-2) of Harford County against fourth-ranked Dunbar (12-1) of Baltimore City in search of their second straight Class 1A state crown.
Joppatowne has a four-game winning streak, having advanced through its eighth state semifinal with last week's 30-0 blowout of traditional power Allegany (10-3). Against Allegany, Preston rushed for 158 yards and threw a 14-yard scoring pass.
The victory earned the defending champs their sixth berth in a state title game. Last year, Joppatowne defeated Beall for the state title after eliminating Dunbar in the semifinals.
"My coaches had to calm me down last year [at M&T; Bank Stadium]. I kind of messed up early, didn't execute plays - I was so excited to be there for the first time," said Preston, who rushed for 170 yards and a touchdown against Beall. "This year, I'll be more relaxed. It's been our year-long goal to get back there."
But Preston, who's 5 feet 10, 180 pounds, almost didn't make it back to Maryland, let alone a state title game. Until early August he was in Sacramento, Calif., having returned to the area of his early childhood to assist in the care of his grandmother, Violet Angton.
"She was struggling after the death of my grandfather. She had been in and out of the hospital for various illnesses, including heart problems," said Preston, who went to Sacramento in April and enrolled in a high school there.
"I was watching the house for her. When she was well enough, I decided to move [back to Maryland]," said Preston, who returned to live with his mother. "One of my cousins is caring for [my grandmother] now. I still check on her. But I'm glad I'm back with the team."
And the Mariners are glad he's back.
"When he left, we lost a playmaker - someone who brings the whole team to a new level," said Maryland-bound defensive end/fullback Jeremy Navarre. "By bringing attention to himself with his presence, his moves, his fakes, Anthony opens things up for everyone else. Plus, he's got great speed."
That speed was evident against Allegany, where he broke free on the game's first play from scrimmage and raced 66 yards for a touchdown.
"Anthony's speed gives us some balance," said first-year coach Bill Waibel. "He gives us an ability to run with a three-back escort."
Preston, who has gained 1,159 yards and scored 14 touchdowns, gives credit to his offensive line - Spencer Washington (6-0, 265), Greg Heisy (6-0, 265), John Hardesty (5-9, 235), Ray Lough (6-2, 220), Joe Lister (6-2, 220) and Joe Stallings (6-0, 185). Running back Joe Ivory has 1,515 yards and 20 touchdowns.
"If I'm getting interviewed, I always mention my line," said Preston, who has passed for 476 yards and six touchdowns. "Our team has like 5,000 yards rushing, and I tell them every day I think they're the best."
Preston is a B-average student, and has drawn interest from Virginia Tech, West Virginia and San Diego State. He bench presses 260 pounds and "is by far, our most conditioned athlete," Waibel said. "He's the kind of kid who laughs during conditioning and sprints - it's very easy for him."
Tomorrow's game won't be easy. State champs in 1994 and '95 and runners-up in '97, Dunbar has made it known that it enters its fourth state title game motivated to avenge last year's 21-0 semifinal loss to Joppatowne.
"There's been a lot of hype between us and Dunbar. They say they've got unfinished business," said Preston, who rushed for 68 yards and threw a touchdown pass in last year's victory over Dunbar. "We know what's coming, and I'm pretty sure they know what's coming. It's going to be a dogfight."