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With special bond, No. 7 Dundalk football takes perfect record into state playoffs: ‘They have each other’s backs’

So much has brought the Dundalk football team closer together in the program’s first undefeated regular season. Topping the list just might be ... fried catfish?

The Baltimore County Division I champions and top seed in the Class 4A/3A North region, the No. 7 Owls (9-0) head into Friday’s second-round game against Kenwood with a dominant offense, a swarming defense and a collective swagger that has grown with every win.

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Ask anybody on the team what has been the foundation and they all point to the same thing: a special bond.

Thursday night team dinners — hosted by senior quarterback Calvin Stokes, with his father’s catfish the main attraction — is a particular favorite.

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“From what everybody says, the catfish is a 10 out of 10,” Stokes said. “The first time it was wings and pizza but, at the end, we ran out of food, so my dad made catfish. After everybody ate the catfish, they all wanted it again.

“I think [the weekly dinners] are real important because it brings us closer together and gives us an opportunity to learn more about each other, be around each other outside of football. It gives us a stronger connection.”

Dundalk football coach Matt Banta speaks with defensive end/tight end Joel Soestre (23).
Dundalk football coach Matt Banta speaks with defensive end/tight end Joel Soestre (23). (Karl Merton Ferron/The Baltimore Sun)

In coach Matt Banta’s seventh year, the Owls showed promise coming into the season and have worked relentlessly in maxing out the team’s potential.

In their nine regular-season wins, they’ve scored 341 points and allowed 46, beating opponents by an average of 33 points per game. Banta first recognized the Owls’ growth when they went 4-1 in the condensed 2020 season that took place in the spring. With the majority of the key players underclassmen, the success carried over to the summer, with strong participation in the weight room. The team was always together — playing laser tag, paintball and starting a water balloon fight. The camaraderie has spilled onto the field this fall.

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“Really, I just notice the way the kids talk to each other,” Banta said. “They have each other’s backs, always checking in on each other, and the senior class has done a really job of holding the team accountable.”

Contributions have come from everywhere.

On offense, junior running back Jordan Fiorenza is the linchpin in his third varsity season. Running behind a cohesive offensive line, he’s rushed 102 times for 1,012 yards (9.9 yards per carry) with five 100-plus yards games and 14 touchdowns.

When defenses key on stopping him, Stokes has accounted for 1,185 total yards (917 in the air, 268 on the ground) and 12 touchdowns. Senior wide receiver/safety Marcus Nicholson is the primary receiving target with 18 catches for 326 yards (18.1 yards per catch) and four touchdowns.

On defense, the Owls are ultra-aggressive and encouraged to use their instincts. They have 28 takeaways with linebackers Abdullah Sargeant and Kamare Watson combining for nine sacks and 18 tackles for loss and Nicholson leading the secondary with three interceptions at safety.

“Our system works,” said Nicholson, a senior. “It fits our offense well. It fits our defense well. The whole team, we got a good thing going and we’re going to keep our foot on the pedal and keep on pushing.”

The regular season has come with galvanizing wins that have tested the Owls’ mettle.

On Sept. 24, they grinded out a 14-13 win over Westminster, with last-minute heroics coming from safety Antonio Brown, who intercepted a 2-point conversion try to secure the win.

Dundalk running back Jordan Fiorenza holds a championship belt as teammates Nyjeer Tirado (13), Antonio Brown (7) and Abdullah Sargeant (5) celebrate his accomplishment of surpassing 1,000 rushing yards this season against Patapsco.
Dundalk running back Jordan Fiorenza holds a championship belt as teammates Nyjeer Tirado (13), Antonio Brown (7) and Abdullah Sargeant (5) celebrate his accomplishment of surpassing 1,000 rushing yards this season against Patapsco. (Karl Merton Ferron/The Baltimore Sun)

The season’s biggest validation came Oct. 15, when the Owls claimed a 27-13 win over perennial state power Franklin in Baltimore County play. Fiorenza carried the ball 27 times for 173 yards and two scores and also threw a touchdown pass.

The Owls celebrated on their home field, in the locker room and some more later that night when they grabbed a bite to eat.

“After Franklin, it was a different atmosphere,” Fiorenza said. “To see the whole team that happy together was great for me. Even seeing the coaches joking and smiling a lot more, listening to the music. It was just different after that.”

The last time Dundalk defeated Franklin was in the regional final in 2015, Banta’s first season. The Owls reached the state title game that year, falling to Damascus.

In this year’s meeting, the Owls left no doubt with a dominant first half setting the tone.

“They came with the mentality that they wanted to make a statement and put themselves in the conversation with the top teams,” Franklin coach Anthony Burgos said. “They came out and played harder for four quarters than we did.”

The quality work during the regular season earned the Owls an opening-round bye in the region playoffs. With no game to play last Friday, the Owls were antsy, but still having fun and locked in.

“I think what makes us special is our chemistry, the connection we have within our team,” Nicholson said. “Every day, we have that special bond that you want to have with your teammates, just having your friends around you. The environment is ridiculous, I love those guys like my brothers and we have a great time together.”

To bring home the program’s first state title, the Owls need to win four more games. Right now, the Owls are only looking forward to the next practice — their next chance to work hard, have fun, be together and get better.

“A state title would be great for the team, the school, great for us,” Fiorenza said. “But, at the same time, we’re not looking that far ahead. We just want to focus on the next task at hand.”

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