Dunbar football made a loud and clear statement in the state championship game: The Poets are back at the top of the Class 2A/1A landscape.
Dunbar used a dynamic running attack to create a big early lead and rolled to 38-6 victory over South Carroll on Saturday at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium for the program’s 11th state championship and first since 2017.
“They wanted to be known as one of the best Dunbar teams ever,” coach Lawrence Smith said. “Everybody wants to compare what is the best Dunbar team. I told them all along that all the records, all the touchdowns, all the shutouts and everything … if you want to be in that conversation, you have to win a state championship. They were focused on that.”
For South Carroll, it was a tough end to a very successful year in which the Cavaliers (12-1) rolled into the title game undefeated while knocking off some tough competition.
“We are a little dejected right now but when it’s all said and done, I am sure we will be proud of what we did for the program,” South Carroll coach Mike Kraus said. “It is a tremendous pride when you can get your young men to follow you and to believe in what you preach.”
Kraus believes that while this is only the fourth Carroll County team to reach the state title game, the play of the Cavaliers this season points to a bright future for his program and football in Carroll.
“They are going to be some [county team] coming down the pipeline,” Kraus said. “They was a question mark about whether teams from [Carroll] could play. I think we proved that we can play along with those teams. Carroll County football is good, competitive football. I will match them up against anywhere we go. We played Frederick, Howard, Washington, Baltimore and Baltimore City this year. I think we did pretty well.”
It didn’t take long for the Poets’ running attack to get going in the state final. After a Cavaliers punt backed Dunbar (13-0) up at its own 4-yard line, junior running back Tristan Kenan took the Poets’ first offensive snap 48 yards into South Carroll territory.
On fourth down, Kenan broke free again to finish the drive with a 38-yard touchdown run. Senior quarterback Devin Roche scored the 2-point conversion for an 8-0 lead.
“We wanted to start fast,” Smith said. “We always want to play fast. We played fast all year. Weather was great so we came out and kept the pedal to the medal.”
A mistake proved costly for South Carroll on the ensuing drive. Senior quarterback Ryan Barnard fumbled under heavy pressure on second down and the Poets recovered at the Cavaliers’ 25.
Two plays later, Roche found senior wideout Donte Lee on a jump ball in the back corner of the end zone to extend the lead. Roche again scored the 2-point conversion as the Poets rolled to a 16-0 advantage.
Dunbar scored again late in an impressive first quarter as Roche got loose on another fourth-down run to make the score 24-0.
“I’m not really a quarterback. In my youth, I was set up to play any position,” Roche said of his playmaking ability. “My team trusts me. Having my team’s trust makes me feel like I can do anything.”
South Carroll showed some fight and got its offense going behind Barnard and junior AJ Rodrigues on the next drive. The Cavaliers picked up four rushing first downs and moved the ball to the Poets’ 10. Rodrigues cashed in from there to draw the Cavaliers a little closer at 24-6.
“We played for each other in this game,” Barnard said. “It didn’t turn out the way we wanted, but we had each other’s backs. We have created a bond with each other for two years and it carried us this far.”
The Poets responded with another big play as Roche made some magic happen on a second-and-long. The senior quarterback scrambled around on a broken play and avoided defenders long enough to find junior Deshawn Parks for a 47-yard touchdown and a 32-6 lead.
Roche added a 2-yard rushing touchdown with five minutes to go as the prolific Poets offense eclipsed the 36-point mark for the fourth straight game in the playoffs.
Roche finished with 98 yards on the ground and accounted for three touchdowns, while Kenan racked up 212 yards and averaged nearly 12 yards a carry.
“They did it all year,” Smith said of his running back tandem. “With Tristan and Devin, it’s a two-headed monster and they did what they needed to do.”
Leaving as a champion was important for Roche, especially after the adversity Dunbar faced with the pandemic, overcoming injuries and dealing with the tragic death of Mervo’s Elijah Gorham three weeks after the wide receiver suffered an injury during a game against the Poets on Sept. 18.
“It means a lot to me,” Roche said. “Coming from the pandemic, it was rocky getting everybody locked in. To see everybody come together as one and get what we were working for all offseason, it was a sigh of relief.”
Kraus said he was proud of the effort his team showed, holding the Poets to just six points in the second half after the team struggled so mightily in the early part of the game.
While the team is losing senior playmakers like Barnard and linebacker Brandon Athey, the coach knows his core group of juniors can keep the momentum going from this successful season into the future.
“This is the first game that our juniors have lost since 2019,” Kraus said. “We have a good outlook, a good nucleus in that junior class. We are going to be just fine.”
For Dunbar, coach Smith expects the Poets to be right back in this spot next season. That has become the expectation for the perennial power.
“The core of the team comes back,” Smith said. “We only have 13 seniors on this team. A quarter of the team comes back. Most of them are going to come back. They are [going to] try to win back-to-back championships.”
Dunbar 24-8-0-6 — 38
South Carroll 0-6-0-0 — 6
D – Tristan Kenan 38-yard run (Devin Roche runs for conversion)
D – Devin Roche 22-yard pass to Donte Lee (Roche runs for conversion)
D – Roche 28-yard run (Roche runs for conversion)
SC – AJ Rodrigues 10-yard run (Conversion no good)
D – Roche 47-yard pass to Deshawn Parks (Roche runs for conversion)
D – Roche 2-yard run (Conversion no good)