Ring leaders on gridiron

Dunbar has become the measuring stick for Baltimore City football.


When Baltimore City public schools joined the Maryland Public Secondary Schools Athletic Association in 1992, Dunbar's basketball team was expected to dominate - and it has. Last year's Class 1A state crown was the Poets' 10th.

But that triumph had been preceded by the accomplishments of the Poets' football team in the fall, as it capped a 13-game winning streak by winning the 1A state title, its third championship.

Dunbar, which won 2A and 3A state titles in football in 1994 and '95, joined state powers Damascus, Seneca Valley and Wilde Lake as the only football programs to win championships in three different classifications.

Dunbar has become the standard by which Baltimore City football teams are measured, not only because of its state titles, but because of its willingness to prove itself against non-city competition.

The Poets' tradition of scheduling games against tough opponents from outside the city began under former coach Stanley Mitchell, who reached three state title games in five years through 1997.

Ben Eaton, who is in his eighth season as the Poets' head coach and is a former assistant to Mitchell, has continued the custom, scheduling games against Maryland Interscholastic Athletic Association A Conference powers Gilman (last season) and Loyola (this season).

"We always kind of feel like it's the city vs. everyone else when it comes to Baltimore's reputation around the state, which is why I try to schedule tough teams every year," Eaton said. "We don't always have the best facilities around in the city, so it's like people think they're better than us. I hear it even more now because people don't think we can repeat. So we're like, `Let's show them what we teach at this little school in Baltimore.' "

During Mitchell's tenure, the Poets defeated teams led by some of the state's top coaches, such as John Buccheister (Randallstown), Mike Calhoun (Fort Hill), Doug Fleetwood (Cambridge-South Dorchester), Tom Glynn (Douglass of Prince George's County), Rocco Romeo (Largo of Prince George's County), Fred Shepherd (Churchill) and Augie Waibel (Poly).

"One thing that [impressed me about] Dunbar in the '90s is that instead of staying within the city, they were the ones that stepped outside of the city. I remember talking to Stanley about it," said Sheldon Shealor, co-editor of the MDVarsity.com recruiting Web site. "Dunbar was the first city school to kind of step out and say, `OK, we're part of a bigger picture now.' I use Dunbar as the benchmark to kind of compare the city to the rest of the state."

Seeking a competitive schedule during the regular season has prepared the Poets well for the postseason, Eaton said.

He recalls how the Poets' 25-man team outlasted a previously unbeaten, 70-member Churchill of Montgomery County squad in the 1995 Class 3A state final, 30-28 in overtime. A year earlier in the 2A title game, Dunbar's 27-man squad (including seven players up from the junior varsity for the playoffs) won a battle of unbeaten teams, 30-15, over Fort Hill.

Dunbar, whose lone loss last season was against six-time MIAA A Conference champion Gilman, also has beaten Poolesville of Montgomery County in the playoffs the past two years.

Like the basketball team has always done, the Dunbar football team sets a high standard for itself. Members of the Poets' football team define success as "winning a state championship," said defensive end Delano Johnson.

Johnson, defensive end Yusef Dorman-El and quarterback Marcus Taylor also play basketball, and they believe that the same statewide respect given to the Poets' basketball team should be extended to Dunbar football.

"When I first came to this school as a ninth-grader, they were labeled the best in football and basketball," Johnson said. "We always believe we're the best, and we go into every game believing that our coaches have prepared us to win."

Tied for first place in Baltimore City's Division I and with a shot at their fourth league crown, this year's Poets (7-2, 6-1) have lost to Loyola in overtime and to Baltimore City Division I rival Patterson on a late touchdown.

But the setbacks have done little to damage the Poets' confidence. In fact, the players' resolve has been strengthened.

"Losing is devastating, but we feel like everything happens for a reason," Dorman-El said. "It was like a test to see if the defending champions could get up and move on"

The Poets have relied mostly on defense this season, allowing just 26 points in their first six wins. Only Patterson and Loyola have scored in double digits against Dunbar.

"Everybody wants to beat Dunbar, so we get everyone's best game. But we take everyone as seriously as they take us," senior linebacker Antonio Salter said. "Once that Dunbar jersey's on, you carry yourself with a lot of confidence, like we run sports in this city."

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