The football season didn't start off perfectly for Old Mill, Franklin, Dunbar or Douglass, but that doesn't matter now.
All four overcame early adversity to reach this week's state championship games at M&T Bank Stadium. Old Mill and Dunbar barely made it through, while defending Class 3A champion Franklin and last year's Class 1A runner-up Douglass each learned from early-season losses that sparked a return to the title game.
Every coach and player would like to win a state championship with an undefeated team, but sometimes getting over a big hurdle — or even one was as small as a single regular-season loss — can push players to be better than they thought they were.
"I was an assistant at Old Mill in 2009 and won a championship and that year, we had two losses as well," said Patriots coach Chad McCormick, whose team started this season 0-2. "Those losses early in the season this year probably helped us a lot. They focused us incredibly. Last year, we were undefeated [going into the region playoffs and lost in the first round] and maybe we were a little too overconfident going into that game. This year, it was a little bit different."
The Patriots, who face defending champion Northwest for the Class 4A title Friday night, lost to Broadneck and Arundel in those first two games and teetered on the brink of missing the playoffs until the final week of the season. They turned the ball over six times in those losses, committed more than 200 yards of penalties and needed to develop chemistry on an all-new offensive line.
In the third game, they defeated Meade, taking advantage of the opposition's mistakes instead of making them. That started a run of 10 straight wins that earned them the final berth in the Class 3A region playoffs over the Mustangs (7-3). In the region playoffs, the Patriots avenged losses to Broadneck and Arundel and edged No. 5 Howard, 10-3, in the state semifinals.
Dunbar's problems started before the first practice. Not only had the Poets graduated 30 starters, but several more players transferred after coach Lawrence Smith was suspended over the handling of an alleged hazing incident in 2013. Players talked of boycotting the season if Smith didn't return.
Smith put an end to that talk and interim coach Michael Carter held the team together through an 0-2 start. After that, the No. 14 Poets lost only a 28-22 triple-overtime thriller to Edmondson on Halloween. By then Smith was back, having been granted an injunction that allowed him to coach while he appealed his suspension, and the Poets had hit their stride, thanks in large part to the leadership of junior quarterback Zionnez Spencer.
In Friday's Class 2A state semifinal at Kent Island, with Smith back on the sideline for the fifth week, the Poets were all but beaten until Spencer escaped a sack and threw a touchdown pass to Ivan Lomax with no time left on the clock to win, 24-21, and earn a berth in Saturday's state final against undefeated Douglass, from Prince George's County.
"Most of the players said if I stay, they're going to stay, so I just decided to lead my teammates and the outcome is turning out pretty well," Spencer said. "We just had to deal with the adversity, keep going. I just encouraged my teammates throughout the whole thing. Keep going strong. We're going to stick this thing out and win the championship."
Even as Dunbar's season appeared to blow up before the first kickoff, Spencer put in his Twitter bio that the Poets would win the state championship.
"No matter what happens, I told them they've already made history," said Smith, whose Dunbar program has won nine state titles. "No (Dunbar) team ever won on the road three straight times in the playoffs. We lost to Catoctin on the road with a great team. We lost to Snow Hill with Tavon (Austin). That's amazing for a young team like this. That's the type of stuff they have, that's carried them this far."
No. 4 Franklin and No. 12 Douglass also faced a few challenges while trying to get back to the title game.
For the second straight time, Franklin fell to Calvert Hall in the season opener. Looking back, the 35-24 loss helped.
"It kept us very humble, because we're not the best team out there," senior Jordan Adams said. "We still can be defeated by other teams, so in the long run, it helped us a lot. We're back in states so that's good."
Last season, the Indians lost a second game to Perry Hall and started 2-2, but this fall, they've won 12 straight to get to their third state final in five years.
"The major hurdle," coach Anthony Burgos said, "was just understanding that last year was a different team and that they had to find themselves and really come up with this team's identity: 'What is this team in 2014 made of?'"
"Some of the guys on this team had the luxury of just being able to play football last year," Burgos said. "They didn't have to worry about leading the stretching lines, they didn't have to worry about making sure guys were doing the right things in the classroom or in the hallways, so it was a fun atmosphere for them. This year we struggled early in the summer just finding that leadership. Even the first day of practice was a struggle just getting guys to practice on time. I told them from day one this is going to be our problem. If somebody doesn't step up and not be afraid to be a teammate as opposed to being a friend, we're going to have some problems."
It took a while but wide receiver-cornerback Adams and junior linebacker Jimmy Lahay emerged to fill the void and they're now leading the Indians into Thursday night's title game against Damascus.
Douglass, which went undefeated into last year's Class 1A state final, suffered its first regular-season loss in almost two years, falling to Mervo in the third game of the season.
The Ducks (12-1) took that in stride, using it to fuel their determination to get back to Saturday afternoon's state final and get another shot at Fort Hill, which beat them 25-0 last year.
"It helps because last year we didn't know how it feels to lose. We just were thinking it was going to be a walk in the park," Ducks lineman Antwan Johnson said. "This year, we got a taste of our own medicine, so we took that 'L' and we moved on. We moved forward and got past it."
The Ducks had to do a little rebuilding too. Although they retained some of their leadership and top players, they added several transfers, including top running back Maurice McFadden from Franklin and a couple of offensive linemen.
They lost the third game of the season to Mervo, but by the time they got to the playoffs, the Ducks had gotten better at every position. Their defense has not allowed a point in the playoffs — the eight points the Ducks yielded came on a return and a safety.
Douglass coach Elwood Townsend said the Ducks rarely, if ever, trailed in game last year, until they ran into Fort Hill.
"We weren't behind, I don't think, in any of our games last year, but this year we were behind in that Mervo game and we had a different sense of urgency than we did last year," Townsend said. "When we went behind in the game against Fort Hill, we were down like we couldn't really do anything, but this year, that experience helped us a lot going down the stretch. I think those losses helped us in the long run.".