The look in the players' eyes "was of absolute dejection," coach Don Gilbert said after his Dunbar baseball team's extra-inning loss in the Class 1A South region semifinals two weeks ago.
"We had been down in the game four different times, including by four in the seventh inning, and then we'd come back and tie it every time," said Gilbert, 38, in his 10th year with the Poets. "We just couldn't get the tying run in the ninth."
The Poets lost, 20-19, in nine innings to Surrattsville of Prince George's County, but it didn't take long for them to begin focusing on the positives.
Chief among them was the fact that they had gone from a losing record last year to 17-1.
"We knew how great of an accomplishment that was," said shortstop Frederick Ramsey, 16, who is one of six starters expected back next season.
"At first, I couldn't believe our season was over. We weren't used to losing. We had played our hearts out and the game was so close," said first baseman Deverin Pate, 16. "But after a while, we were like, 'Hey, I think we showed that we can play,' and, 'Can't wait until next year.' We left that game with a lot of motivation. Come next season, we'll already be gearing up to make a run at states."
While the level of play in Baltimore City is not as high as in other metro-area counties and leagues -- and Poly rules the city's A Division, where, even there, quality pitching is at a premium -- Gilbert believes his city B Division champion Poets to be a state title contender in Class 1A.
"The experience of being undefeated counts for something, regardless of the fact that we're in the B Division," Gilbert said. "I believe that it took a lot of talent to win those games, and the experience of knowing how to win, along with the work these kids are going to put forth in the offseason -- that's going to be a huge factor for us next year."
Like Ramsey and Pate, outfielder Kenyon Kinard and right-handed pitcher Keith Jones should return as seniors. Second baseman Chris Boynton and third baseman-shortstop Andrew Stokes, meanwhile, would come back as juniors.
Gilbert said Ramsey "did everything for us," calling him "easily our best player." Ramsey hit .583 with 21 RBIs, seven doubles, three triples, 32 stolen bases and 37 runs scored.
"I've been playing baseball since I was about 4, and the attitude I try to bring is that of a leader," said Ramsey, who transferred from Poly entering his junior year. "I'm very aggressive, and I believe that rubs off on some of the younger guys."
Pate "was easily our most improved player this year," Gilbert said. Pate hit .537 with 27 RBIs, three doubles, three home runs, 27 stolen bases and 25 runs scored.
Kinard was also productive, batting .535 with 25 RBIs, five doubles, two home runs, 27 runs scored and 28 stolen bases. On the mound, Jones went 8-1, taking the loss to Surrattsville. Jones struck out 88 batters in 47 innings, hit .553 with 15 RBIs, stole 17 bases and scored 19 times. Boynton hit .578 with 10 doubles and 35 runs scored, and Stokes batted .646 with 31 RBIs and 30 runs.
The Dunbar players wanted to win not only for themselves, but also for their coach. Gilbert's absence because of a severe case of mononucleosis led to a shortened season in 2006.
"I was really sick and missed about two weeks," said Gilbert, whose Poets were 4-7 when he became ill in late April. "I returned with about a week and a half remaining in the regular season. I thought we had begun to start playing well."
But at the start of the playoffs, the Poets' record fell short of the Maryland Public Secondary Schools Athletic Association's cutoff for mandatory number of games played (12). So the Poets failed to qualify.
"That was a real big upset for myself and the rest of the team," Pate said. "Coach Gilbert has done so much for us -- that's one of the main reasons we were successful this year. We want it for him as much as for ourselves."
Gilbert is a former minor leaguer in the Orioles' farm system, and his "past experience gives him a great deal of credibility," Ramsey said.
"But he's also a great teacher of life skills beyond baseball as far as how to be a man, how to stay strong," Ramsey said of Gilbert, a world history instructor at Dunbar. "A lot of the same principles that he emphasizes for baseball also refer to life. Our respect for him comes from the other ways he affects our lives as well as the fact that he's our coach."
Gilbert and the Poets will miss outgoing seniors Derek Session, a four-year starting catcher, and left fielder Kendall Jamison, whom Kinard called "more or less the heart and soul of our team."
"But most of us are coming back, and we're trying to come back real strong by picking up where we left off, and, hopefully, rolling on as a powerhouse team, said Kinard, who, like Session, played on last fall's state title-winning Poets football team.
"I really can't describe the feeling of being on a state championship team, but it's something I'd like to help the rest of the baseball team members to experience for themselves," said Kinard, whose Poets joined Edmondson as the city's lone state championship football teams.
"Doing something like that -- winning a state title in football -- is rare for a city team," Kinard said. "So you can only imagine right now what that would be like for our baseball team. Because I already know what that feels like, more than anything, I really want that same feeling for our guys more than I do for myself."