Poets save season by getting message

The Baltimore Sun

In his first year as coach of the Dunbar Poets, Cyrus Jones already has a business card.

The burnt orange card has a basketball with an owl pictured inside at the top. It includes Dunbar's address and Jones' name and phone number in the middle.

At the bottom of the card is a message in white print: "One Mission :: One Vision :: One Family." That message took the Poets some time to learn.

"Early in the season, we really weren't playing unselfish basketball and we really weren't playing well together as a unit," Jones said. "But now, we're starting to realize that we need each other."

The Poets find themselves in familiar territory today at 3 p.m. as they travel to the University of Maryland's Comcast Center to play Snow Hill (26-0) in the Class 1A state semifinals.

The No. 15 Poets (16-8) have been to the championship game in 14 of the past 15 seasons. They've won the championship 11 times, with the last one coming in 2006.

For Dunbar, anything less than a state championship is an unsuccessful season. But midway through the year, its record was 6-6, a far cry from the championship contenderDunbar is accustomed to fielding.

"We just made a lot of mistakes in reference to not taking care of the basketball, not really playing together, and defensive stops we just couldn't get," Jones said. "We just constantly reminded the kids of the things we would have to do to get to this point."

Early in the season, Dunbar had a disheartening 56-33 loss to defending Class 1A champion New Town on Dec. 29. The Titans beat the Poets in the state title game last year.

"That was a hard loss for us. Them being New Town, them winning the state championship last year and beating Dunbar at the time, that was definitely a big game that we wanted to try to win," Jones said. "We thought as though that was a downfall for us and it really could have hurt our season, but we just hung in there and really went back to practice and working hard and got ourselves back. It helped us I think."

Part of the problem was that point guard, and Sun football Offensive Player of the Year, Tavon Austin, missed four games (three of them losses) because of a cut on his knee that required stitches.

Austin made his return on Jan. 18, when Dunbar traveled to then-No. 8 Digital Harbor, and showed why his presence was sorely missed.

"His competitiveness, talking to the kids, motivating the kids, leadership. He just does a lot of things that don't get noted in the stats," Jones said. "Just having him around, his presence alone, he's just a true leader, and those types of kids, a coach loves to have."

Austin's return helped spring the Poets to a 60-55 upset.

"It was a big win, we got our playmaker back in Tavon," forward and leading scorer Sean Farr said after the game.

The win was a turning point in Dunbar's season. The Poets won six of their final eight regular-season games.

When it was time for playoff seeding, officials believed the Poets' record wasn't one of the four best in the region, so they weren't given a bye.

But Dunbar's record was listed incorrectly, and the Poets were given the No. 3 seed, giving them a bye and a home game in the quarterfinals.

"That was definitely important as well," Jones said. "It was a mishap on the administrative end; they didn't have our record reported correctly. I'm glad they was able to correct that error and put us in a higher seed from where we were, and, of course, it panned out."

Dunbar got to the regional semifinals and beat Pikesville. It then outlasted Owings Mills in the regional final, winning, 87-81, in triple overtime.

So now the Poets are again in the state semifinals. Even though the route to College Park wasn't as conventional as in years past, the players still expected to be in this position in mid-March.

"We're just going to keep it moving, try to get a state championship in basketball, too," Austin said Dec. 8, after the Poets won the Class 1A football championship.

And although it might have taken longer than expected, the Dunbar players finally got the message written on Jones' card.

"Our motto all year has been 'One mission; one vision; one family,' " Jones said. "We finally got to that point in the regional playoffs, and here we are."

stefen.lovelace@baltsun.com

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