High School sports

Dunbar rallies to win eighth state football title

Despite having played once or twice at M&T Bank Stadium, Dunbar's football players needed a little time to settle into the state playoff atmosphere Saturday afternoon.

After a disjointed first half, Lavar Highsmith returned the second-half-opening kickoff 52 yards to set the tone and the defense made two fourth-down stands to fight off a determined Perryville squad as the No. 6 Poets won their eighth state championship, 32-11, over the previously unbeaten Panthers.

"This means a lot to us," Poets linebacker Ernest Hawkins said. "Since Day One, we came in in the summer, working in the weight room, working just to get to the state championship. Plus, I'm a senior and I didn't want to go out losing a state championship, so this is everything right now."

Bad snaps, poor execution and 81 yards of penalties handcuffed the Poets' offense early while their Cecil County opponents, who had beaten Fort Hill in the state semifinal, proved they could handle Dunbar's defensive line.

In the second half, however, Highsmith set the bar high and the Poets defense' raised it en route to their second straight championship and fifth in six years. The Poets (12-2) tied Allegany for the second-most state titles in tournament history. Seneca Valley has 12.

Trailing 11-8 going into the second half, the Poets followed Highsmith's long return with Charles Brown Jr.'s 25-yard scamper through a wide gap up the middle to the end zone. Quarterback William Crest hit Eddie Nelson Jr. for the two-point conversion and a 16-11 lead.

Then the defense took over.

The Panthers (13-1) drove 54 yards to the Poets' 6-yard line. After Ethan Griffin picked up 5 more yards, the Poets staged a goal-line stand behind their big defensive front of Raymond Jackson Jr., Byron Williams, Joshua Davis and Dariz Hill that stuffed the Panthers three straight times.

"The goal-line stand was huge," Dunbar coach Lawrence Smith said. "We have five 350-pounders on our team, and we have a defensive set that we call 'Elephant,' so we went with that set. I feel, personally, that was the turnaround to the game. That took the wind out of them, and we did what we had to do to bring home a championship."

The Poets turned the ball over on their next drive, but the defense again stopped the Panthers on fourth down when Marvin Gross Jr. sacked Gabe Sherrod on fourth-and-6 from the Dunbar 29.

"That was a great stop, and I think it changed the whole game," Gross said of the goal-line stand. "I knew when we came back out [on defense], we needed another stop so our offense could get the ball and we could score again and put the game away. My number was called, and I did what I do: get to the quarterback."

Two possessions later, Deon-Tay McManus all but sealed the victory with a 29-yard touchdown run and the two-point conversion for a 24-11 lead with 2:04 left in the game.

After that, the Poets forced two fumbles, recovered by Hawkins and Leland Lassiter. In between, Paki Brown scored on 13-yard run and Coleman Blackston added the conversion run for the final score.

This was the second straight comeback title win for the Poets. Last season, they rallied from a 12-0 halftime deficit to beat Havre de Grace, 22-12.

In the first half, the Panthers, who were looking for their first state title, pounced first on Jacob Morgan's 33-yard field goal midway through the first quarter. The Poets contributed 31 yards in penalties to that Panthers drive.

The Poets came back with a penalty-free, 55-yard drive capped by Terrance Williams' 7-yard touchdown run. The conversion pass from Crest to Hawkins gave Dunbar an 8-3 lead with 1:13 to go in the first quarter. Perryville took an 11-8 lead when Sherrod found Brian Matthews with a 45-yard touchdown strike 40 seconds into the second quarter.

McManus led the Poets with 63 yards on five carries while Highsmith had 55 yards on seven carries and Charles Brown added 45 yards on seven carries. Crest was 5-for-11 for 127 yards passing. Hawkins caught two passes for 47 yards, and Aaron Haynes had one catch for 51 yards.

D 8 0 8 16 — 32

P 3 8 0 0 — 11

P—Morgan 33 FG

D—T.Williams 7 run (Hawkins pass from Crest)

P—Mathews 45 pass from Sherrod (Griffin run)

D—C.Brown 25 run (Nelson pass from Crest)

D—McManus 29 run (McManus conversion)

D—P.Brown 13 run (Blackston run)