BALTIMORE — So maybe it is a rivalry.
At least Dunbar head coach Lawrence Smith seems to think it is.
“Fort Hill and Dunbar, that’s the rivalry,” Smith told Varsity Sports Network of Saturday’s Maryland Class 1A semifinal between the Poets and the Sentinels after his team dispatched Forest Park 32-12 to win its eighth straight region title. “They know what we’re going to bring, we know what they’re going to bring. We know it’s going to be crowded, it just so happens it’s not going to be at M&T Bank Stadium.”
No, this time, the fifth time Fort Hill and Dunbar meet in the Maryland state football playoffs, it won’t be at M&T Bank Stadium. For that matter, it won’t be at the University of Maryland’s Byrd Stadium, nor will it be at Hagerstown’s School Stadium, the sites of the first four Fort Hill-Dunbar meetings. Nor will it be for a state championship, but rather, for a berth in the state-championship game as the Sentinels and the Poets play Saturday, 1 p.m., at Baltimore Poly High School in the semifinals.
Fort Hill-Dunbar. The first four meetings have produced down-to-the-wire, grind-it-out, decisive and even thrilling (for Dunbar) and chilling (for Fort Hill) contests, with Dunbar leading the series, 3-1, having won the 2A title over Fort Hill, 30-15, in 1994; the 1A title, 38-23, in 2006; and the 1A title, 20-19, in 2008.
The Sentinels’ lone win in the series came in the 1997 2A title game at Byrd, 22-6. However, this series was culminated by the one the Sentinels were less than two-minutes away from winning, before Dunbar drove 90 yards to score in the final seconds to win the championship game of 2008 in the teams’ second meeting at M&T Bank Stadium.
So if Dunbar sees Fort Hill as a rival, how does Fort Hill see Dunbar, a team it has met off-and-on since 1994?
“Our kids see Dunbar as a team that they need to beat to get to the next level,” said Fort Hill head coach Todd Appel. “They know the history. They know about the last four meetings, with us winning just one. They see that when they come into the dressing room, but they know when you beat Dunbar you seem to win a state championship.
“They know the history but they know this is the opponent they have to face and defeat to get to the next level. We need to focus on ourselves and our coaching staff and not worry about the surrounding intel on the internet and all of the external data that is available in this day and age. We just have to focus on having the best team effort we can to beat them.”
The Sentinels (9-3) advanced to the semifinals with a 25-0 victory over Mountain Ridge to clinch the West Region championship for the fifth time (fourth in 1A) in eight years. The Poets (11-1), with their victory over Forest Park made it a perfect 8-for-8 for winning the South Region title.
Fort Hill will be shooting for its ninth appearance in a state-championship game, having won the the 3A title in 1975 and the 2A title in 1997. Dunbar, since joining the MPSSAA in 1994, has played in seven title games, winning six (four 1A, one 2A and one 3A), while being runner-up once.
Fort Hill is currently on a four-game winning streak, its longest of the season. The Sentinels have registered six shutouts and have outscored opponents by an average of 28-10 (356 to 120). The only losses have been to 4A schools, Mount. St. Joseph, 14-10; Martinsburg, 42-10; and Thomas Johnson, 21-17.
Dunbar has won 10 in a row since losing 32-20 to Patterson on Sept. 11. The Poets have outscored opponents by an average of 36-5 (435 to 62), have seven shutouts (six in a row until Forest Park) and have held three other opponents to two scores or less.
“They’re very good defensively, they run to the ball well,” Appel said of Dunbar. “They have good linebackers, one is a transfer from Joppatowne, Epe Henriques, who played against us two years ago in the stadium for Joppatowne. Andre Cudanin is another good one, and Travon Garrett is tough.
“They make big plays on the defensive side of the ball; they cause turnovers.”
The word most commonly used by Appel in discussing the Poets is “typical,” for while even the though the names have changed, the manner in which Dunbar plays and is able to play, not to mention the results, have remained pretty much the same.
“They’ve got some great athletes,” Appel said. “They’re typical Dunbar, filled with go-to kids. They don’t have the Tavon Austins that they’ve had in the past, but they have kids that can certainly hurt you with the big play and they’ve done that often when we’ve seen them.”
These new but typical Dunbar players are led by 6-2, 215-pound junior wide receiver and safety Deontay McManus, who has already received scholarship offers from Connecticut, Georgia, Maryland, Michigan, North Carolina State, Penn State, Rutgers, South Carolina and Virginia.
“They compare him to (Ravens wide receiver) Anquan Boldin because he has the same physical makeup,” Smith told the Baltimore Sun. “He’s built like a man. That’s the biggest thing — his physicality. He’s a real physical-type player. That really sets him apart at the high school level.”
Smith will get no argument from Appel, who said, “Deontay McManus is a big, strong kid. He fades and he streaks, he goes and gets it, and he can jump out of the gym, so to speak. I guess in this case I mean the football stadium.
“He’ll be a challenge for our corners. We’ll have to cover well, but with his height, it’s hard to cover that with corners our height. We’ll just have to battle him, but he’s good with yards after the catch. He’s real strong and he has about a dozen offers. He’s real.”
As far as getting the ball to McManus, Appel says that could fall on the laps of any number of players.
“Dunbar has used five different quarterbacks this year,” Appel said, “and, depending on what they think of us, they can bring one in to throw, they can bring one who is a better runner than this kid. It’s kind of an unknown.
“With Allegany and Mountain Ridge, you know what to expect because you see them every week. But with Dunbar it’s hard to know what to expect. They have so many players, so many sets, offensively and defensively. They’re a tough deal. Our kids will have to execute and do their best.”
Mike Burke is sports editor of the Cumberland Times-News. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org