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At school known for basketball prowess, Dunbar football team proving it’s a force to be reckoned with

Dunbar's Jeremiah White gets the handoff and finds some room to run on a carry in the first half of a Class 1A state quarterfinal game against Perryville at Dunbar.
Dunbar's Jeremiah White gets the handoff and finds some room to run on a carry in the first half of a Class 1A state quarterfinal game against Perryville at Dunbar. (Matt Button / Baltimore Sun Medi / Baltimore Sun Media Group)

For quite some time, Dunbar was known as a basketball school. The Poets football team has attempted to rewrite that narrative.

Dunbar has won 10 football state championships (1994, 1995, 2004, 2006-2008, 2010-2012, 2017) in school history and looks to capture its 11th on Saturday, when the Poets take on Catoctin in the Class 1A championship at 3:30 p.m. at Navy-Marine Corps Stadium.

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But the “basketball school” label has been hard to shed, considering the school’s success on the hardwood.

After leaving the Maryland Scholastic Association in 1993, the Poets joined the Maryland Public Secondary School Athletic Association. Since then, Dunbar has won a record 16 state championships in boys basketball (1993-1996, 1998, 1999, 2001, 2003-2006, 2010-2013, 2018) and six state titles in girls basketball (2000-2003, 2011, 2012).

In 11 seasons, starting in 1975, coach Bob Wade guided the Poets boys basketball team to a 272-24 record with four undefeated seasons and a legendary national championship in 1982-83. ESPN Films produced a documentary called “Baltimore Boys” in 2017 about the powerhouse teams in the early 1980s that featured future NBA stars Muggsy Bogues, Reggie Lewis, Reggie Williams and David Wingate.

In 1992, Dunbar coach Pete Pompey began to build a football program that would stand the test of time. Former Dunbar All-Metro cornerback Gary Smith and several teammates from Northwood (Tommy Polley, Dante Jones, Ali Culpepper, Duane Green and others) entered the program and built a foundation.

Former Dunbar basketball coach Pete Pompey, right, died of pneumonia on Friday, Jan. 22, 2016, after living with Alzheimer's disease since 2011.
Former Dunbar basketball coach Pete Pompey, right, died of pneumonia on Friday, Jan. 22, 2016, after living with Alzheimer's disease since 2011. (David Hobby / Baltimore Sun)

“A bunch of us came from Northwood and we had that chemistry and culture already instilled within us,” Smith said. “We won national championships, league championships, Pop Warner championships at Northwood. When we came to Dunbar, the culture was already being built, and Stan Mitchell took over in 1993.”

In 1993, Pompey was placed on administrative leave from Dunbar for an alleged misuse of funds from the school’s athletic program. Despite being cleared of all charges after a 14-month investigation by the Baltimore City State’s Attorney, he was reassigned to Edmondson and returned there at the start of the 1994 school year. That opened the door for Mitchell.

After joining the MPSSAA, Dunbar entered the state football playoffs for the first time in 1993. Mitchell brought structure and discipline to the program, which won state titles in 1994 (Class 2A) and 1995 (Class 3A).

“Year, after year, we started to repeat that football championship culture with the guys that were coming in,” Smith said. “After about three times in the state title game, Dunbar was a perennial power in the state. We went to the semifinals and lost [in 1993]. Then we came back in 1994 and won it all and that was in the 2A.

“In the 3A, the following year, they were able to win it again. Tommy Polley and Ali Culpepper led the charge.”

Dunbar coach Ben Eaton, seen here during a 1998 playoff game against Lake Clifton, was a father figure to many players.
Dunbar coach Ben Eaton, seen here during a 1998 playoff game against Lake Clifton, was a father figure to many players. (Sun photo by Jed Kirschbaum)

Ben Eaton became the school’s coach in 1998, succeeding Mitchell, and led the Poets to a 77-30 record over nine seasons and state titles in 2004 and 2006. After Eaton’s sudden death in 2007, current coach Lawrence Smith guided Dunbar to six state championships, including in his first season. The constant passing of the torch to capable coaches has given Dunbar stable leadership.

Sophomore quarterback Karon Ball knows how important a victory Saturday would be for both his and the school’s legacy.

“It’s very important, especially to me, because the legacy at Dunbar for football is everything,” Ball said. “I hear my coaches talk about how he coached some of the guys that are in the NFL back in the day, and that just motivates me a lot more to do what I’m doing.

“This championship would mean everything. I would be on a banner in the gym and also can tell my kids that I won a state championship as a 10th grader.”

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