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If New Town, Dunbar advance, everybody wins with rivalry on horizon

The Baltimore Sun

The distance from Owings Mills to Comcast Center hasn't changed in the year since the New Town boys basketball team made its first visit to the state semifinals last year.

But for Titans coach Michael Smith, the situation that accompanies this year's journey to tomorrow's Class 1A game is altogether different from last year.

For one thing, four players who were on the New Town team bus last year aren't there for this year's trip because of transfers or graduation. But those changes didn't lower the expectations, which, of course, weren't there last year.

"There's more pressure this year," Smith said at a pre-tournament luncheon this week. "They [the players] wanted to go back. The experience for the kids was great last year. It left a little sour taste in their mouth to lose in the first round [semifinal]. I think they really wanted to get back there this year."

Getting back to College Park was a theme for at least three other local boys squads.

Randallstown is seeking a third straight state title, the second consecutive at the 2A level. Dunbar, which is making its 14th trip to the state semifinals, is perched on the other side of the 1A bracket from New Town. Mervo, meanwhile, is making its second straight trip - and fourth overall - to the 3A semifinals.

Mervo's opponent, River Hill, heads to its first state semifinal, hoping to follow Long Reach, which won Howard County's first championship since 1990 last year. And at the 4A level, Glen Burnie goes back to the state semifinals for the first time since 2004 in search of the school's first state title.

For the Titans (20-3), who meet Snow Hill tomorrow, the excitement of getting to the state semifinals for the first time in the school's history last year was further intensified by the opponent: Dunbar.

The Poets (14-6), who can tie a state record with a fifth straight title this year, brought all the tradition, pomp and circumstance last year. And while New Town got off to a good start, the weight of the moment, not to mention Dunbar's slowdown offense, overwhelmed the Titans in a 63-48 loss.

"I think it was Dunbar, the state titles, the national titles," Smith said. "In the first quarter, we were playing on adrenaline. At halftime, we're down two, but I think I didn't get the kids out early [from halftime] to get their shots in. We missed our first seven shots of the second half."

That didn't play out earlier this season when the teams met in a December mixer at Randallstown and New Town beat Dunbar, 80-77. Even so, Smith partially discounts the lasting effect of the win because many Poets were still rounding into basketball shape after being a part of Dunbar's state football championship squad.

"With the football team winning the state championship, they went on through the middle weeks of December, so we didn't get into basketball shape and it takes you a month or two to get into it," Dunbar coach Darnell Dantzler said. "We stumbled out of the gates, but it's a long run. The key to it now is it's not how you start, but it's the way you finish the season.'

And what's intriguing about this finish is if the Poets can get by Fort Hill and New Town can get through to the final. That would set up a potentially delicious Baltimore City-Baltimore County basketball rivalry.

If we're lucky, a series between the Titans and Poets would only intensify over the years, a la Randallstown and Douglass, since, like the Rams and Ducks, New Town and Dunbar will be in the same region for the next two years thanks to reclassification.

By then, Smith and the Titans should have more than enough time and opportunity to get past any sense of idol worship.

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