Few high school football programs in Maryland have a history as illustrious as Dunbar's. The Baltimore City school has made 22 appearances in the Maryland Public Secondary Schools Athletic Association state playoffs, and the program's 55 playoff wins are the most in the state.
Dunbar has won nine MPSSAA state titles, which is the second most in Maryland, but the Poets haven't won one since 2012. That's their longest championship drought since 2004.
Before the season began, head coach Lawrence Smith was confident this year's group would be a strong one but might be a year away from peaking. The team has progressed a lot quicker than expected, however. Dunbar faces Fort Hill for the MPSSAA 1A state championship Dec. 2.
"I knew we'd be good, but also knew we lost a lot of guys from last year, so we'd be relying on players that were previously on the JV," Smith said. "They've definitely exceeded our coaches' expectations, but it's a testament to how good our JV program is. Our JV program has won three straight city titles, which is a tremendous feat, and we're reaping the benefits of that on the varsity now."
Dunbar is hurtling toward the state championship with plenty of momentum on its side. The Poets have won 11 straight since losing their season opener against Allegany.
To Smith, the team's standout performance of the regular season came against Mervo. Dunbar had not beaten Mervo since 2012, and during that period the Mustangs had won each Baltimore City Division I championship. This time, however, Dunbar scored the game's first five touchdowns en route to a 38-13 victory.
"That was a statement game for us," Dunbar senior quarterback Jared Lewis said. "A lot of people doubted us and thought we were a bunch of nobodies who weren't as good as the old Dunbar. We knew we had to come out and prove those people wrong. We just executed on all levels."
Dunbar has continued to excel during the postseason. The Poets routed Chesapeake-Baltimore County and Reginald F. Lewis by identical 48-0 scores to win the MPSSAA 1A North region, and then defeated Havre de Grace, 52-27, to punch their ticket to the state championship.
In Fort Hill, Dunbar faces an opponent it's familiar with. The two programs have played in the state final five times since 1994, with Dunbar winning four of the contests.
Fort Hill is seeking its fifth straight state championship, which would be a Maryland record for consecutive titles. Dunbar has spent the past four years competing at the 2A level.
Employing its famed Wing-T offense, Fort Hill likes to run the ball and usually has multiple players rush for more than 100 yards during games. It's a difficult offense to contain, which the Poets learned firsthand this season against Allegany. The Campers, Fort Hill's biggest rival, also run the Wing-T and were able to score 49 points against Dunbar.
"You have got be able to control the gaps and stay home," Smith said. "It's an offense that you have to be able to be disciplined against because you have no chance if you're not. It's tough to completely stop that kind of offense, so we're aiming to slow it down."
To Lewis, the play of Dunbar's offense could also play a significant role in slowing down Fort Hill.
"Our goal is to make them change their game plan and get them out of comfort zone as much as possible," Lewis said. "If we keep scoring and go ahead early they won't want to run the ball as much. That's the plan -- jump ahead and don't look back."
It figures to be an exciting contest between the two programs that have dominated the 1A level for years. Since 2004, they have combined to win 11 MPSSAA 1A state titles.
The history is not lost on Dunbar's players, who know what a triumph over Fort Hill would mean for their community.
"Winning would mean even more because it's been a pretty long wait for Dunbar," Lewis said. "We want to get this one not just for us but for the city, school and everyone who supports us, too. It's bigger than just us."