The coaches of the Poly varsity basketball teams understand that finding success on the court involves much more than having talented athletes and drawing up good plays at the right times.
Kendall Peace-Able and Sam Brand coach the girls and boys, respectively, and have worked hard to build situations that make the teenagers who come out of Poly good students as well as athletes.
The coaches' philosophies are rooted in their own experiences; both went to Poly and played there. Peace-Able and Brand strongly value education and have spent the last several seasons building programs that now are winning on and off the court.
The boys are the two-time defending state champions in Class 3A. They also won the tough Baltimore City title in 2016 and 2018. Poly has a 151-68 record (through Feb. 10) under Brand. He's in his ninth year as the head coach at Poly.
The girls have a 317-84 record (through Feb. 10) during Peace-Able's 15-plus years at the helm. They've taken four of the last six city titles but still are searching for their first state title despite making it to the state semifinals four times and the championship game twice -- all since 2012.
Peace-Able played at Lincoln University, then a Division III school, and earned a bachelor's degree in mathematics plus a master's in mechanical engineering and educational leadership. She now teaches mechanical engineering at Poly.
Brand earned a bachelor's degree in mathematics and a master's degree in mathematics education. He played at Morgan State and was an assistant coach there for four years before coming back home, where the former guard teaches math. Poly was 4-19 the year before Brand took over, and the young coach knew what was in front of him.
"The first part of turning the program around was establishing that we were very serious about the academic rigors of Poly and that the guys understood that," Brand said. "Our whole staff is made up of a group of Poly guys who played there and who understood how hard it was to play basketball and do [the academics]."
Brand has worked with assistants like associate head coach Anthony Fitzgerald and junior varsity head coach Larry Tucker to create a strong program that gets the players ready for college not just on the court but in the classroom.
They have regular study halls and tutors for the players in various forms year-round to work toward that goal, as does Peace-Able with the girls' team.
However, the two coaches still faced the challenge of building winning attitudes on the court. Dunbar (six state titles) and Western (two) were always strong on the girls' side while Dunbar (a state-record 16 state titles) and Lake Clifton (five) were the boys' teams to beat in Baltimore City. In fact, Lake Clifton (Class 2A) and Dunbar (Class 1A) also won the state championships last year as Poly took the Class 3A crown.
Engineer players needed the confidence that they could play at that high level.
"It was getting people to believe in themselves," Peace-Able said. "Once they realize they can do it, it changes the narrative. It starts to become the expectation. It changes the dialogue. You can compete."
That's what Poly's girls and boys had to do. Things began to change earlier in this decade for the girls as they advanced to (but lost) in a state semifinal in 2012, 2014, 2015 and 2018. They also fell in the championship in 2013 and 2016.
Peace-Able, who has former players like Blair Harding and Tee Robinson on her staff, said the Engineers need to learn from those tough losses and apply those lessons going forward.
"It's not real losses, just lessons," she said. "You've got to figure out what you can do better. You can develop some real significant character through losses."
The girls are hoping to learn from last year's tough loss to Long Reach in the state semifinal. Senior Janya Lilly and junior Dasia Townes are leading a balanced offensive team that Peace-Able enjoys coaching.
"I think they're very, very talented," Peace-Able said. "We're closing the gaps with better teams. We've got to compete from the start to the finish of the game."
Brand is thrilled the boys have won two city and state crowns plus three regional championships. The regional title they won in 2013 (Class 4A North back then) on the road against Paint Branch is something he points to as a turning point since it was the program's first championship of any kind.
Just like the girls, the boys have plenty of balance. Juniors Justin Lewis, Brandon Murray and Rahim Ali lead the way as Poly has battled through a schedule that includes a number of tough out-of-area opponents, just like the girls.
But after winning two straight state titles, Brand knows the local teams are watching the Engineers, and he wants more for his program.
"We know we have a target on our back," he said. "Things change as your program wins more. We are ready to continue to grow. Our goal is to have a nationally-recognized high school basketball program that's producing college-ready student-athletes year after year."
Both coaches wanted to build a strong program on and off the court. They've done exactly that, and now the boys and girls at Poly have become a force in basketball in Baltimore City.
In other words, the teacher-coaches have worked their lesson plans to perfection.
Photo Credit: Courtesy of Poly Athletics
Issue 251: February 2019
Originally published Feb. 15, 2019