Success not just numbers, coaches say
Dunbar and Gilman will play football tonight for the first time in 12 years, but there was a time when they were regular rivals.
Dunbar coach Lawrence Smith and Gilman coach Tim Holley Jr. played for their respective teams when they were part of the Maryland Scholastic Association. For 75 years, the MSA governed boys sports at Baltimore City public schools and Baltimore-area private and parochial schools until it disbanded in 1993.
“Anytime we can play an MSA school, I’m thrilled to have that opportunity,” Holley said.
“I played against Dunbar as a kid, so my loyalties and allegiances to the MSA and the schools that were part of the MSA still kind of tug on my heartstrings. I thought it would be a great opportunity for us to do something, at least as high school your coaching staff,” Strunk said.
Chad McCormick also coaches at one of the state’s biggest schools, Old Mill, so he too has a large potential talent pool. His Patriots have qualified for the playoffs 17 straight times and won state championships in 2009 and 2011. To him, numbers don’t mean that much, either.
“Obviously having a bigger school, you have more kids to choose from, but if you have the right kids, it doesn’t matter how big your school is,” McCormick said.
Many coaches share that philosophy. Much more important to building a consistently strong program — whether that means winning state championships, winning county championships or being in the hunt year after year — is the work that builds and sustains the foundation for a competitive team.
Consistency in coaching, commitment from the athletes and a well-attended offseason program rank high among head coaches’ requirements for keeping a program going even through the dips in talent that come in a cyclical sport such as football.
Wilde Lake coach Mike Harrison, who led the Wildecats to the Class 3A state title in 2010 and was an assistant coach to Doug Duval for four of their other five titles, has seen the same thing in all of Howard County’s successful programs.
“The kids have the expectation to win and they work hard enough to put themselves in the position to win,” Harrison said. “It was the same with Brian [Van Deusen for four state titles at River Hill]. There’s no magic to it. The kids just expect to win.”
Building a tradition of winning and competing for state championships will keep the players coming.
“I definitely think tradition is a pretty important part for any school,” McCormick said. “There’s probably a number of things that vary from program to program, like football interest in the area, but programs like Damascus and Fort Hill, even though they’re smaller schools, they’re the types of football teams that can probably compete with any level football in the state of Maryland. I don’t know if the school size matters as much as the program.”
If the size of the school directly affected the strength of the football team, Damascus could never have won the Class 3A championship last season.
While the Hornets had the largest rosters of any team in the state semifinals last year in any classification, their school is the second-smallest of 51 3A schools. Dundalk, the team they beat in the state final, 55-14, has about 330 more students, according to state enrollment numbers used to determine the four classifications.
Despite being a small school, Dunbar has no trouble reloading every year because Lawrence Smith Tim Holley Jr. Howard players practice last week. The Lions have gone unbeaten in Howard County the past two seasons and reached the state semifinals. More important to success than school size, said Howard coach Bruce Strunk, “is the kids buying into your program. That and the consistency of your coaching staff.” athletes from around the city want to play for the Poets. That happens when you’ve won nine state championships and a state-record 50 playoff games. Dunbar has won state titles in Class 3A, 2A and1A and is one of only seven programs to win three in a row, along with Urbana, which won four straight, Wilde Lake, Fort Hill, Middletown, Seneca Valley and Springbrook.
Coach Lawrence Smith said he doesn’t know where his team’s regional championship and county championship plaques are. All that matters is hanging a new state title banner in the Dunbar gym.
“We ran off 14 straight regional championships, but that’s not what we want to do here,” Smith said. “We want to win state championships, and the kids buy into it.”
Dunbar, now a Class 2A school, draws roughly120 players and they can come from anywhere in the city, but Smith points out that much bigger schools than his also draw from across the city.
Some programs, including South Carroll, which has been in the Class 2A regional playoffs seven straight times, try to hook players as early as possible.
Cavaliers coach Steve Luette and his staff stay connected with the recreation program coaches and invite them to meetings. They designate one game each season for the recreation players to attend for free.
“When you get a winning tradition, you get more players at the youth level who want to play football,” Luette said. “Sometimes it’s hard to get started but it filters right down to the rec program and then kids can’t wait to get on that high school team.”
When: Tonight, 7 Coaches: Tim Holley Jr., Gilman; Lawrence Smith, Dunbar Last meeting: Gilman won, 28-14, in 2004 Gilman: TE Thomas Booker, Jr.; LB-TE Antonio DiCerbo, Sr.; FS-WR Drew Ehrlich, Sr.; RB-SS Robert Levine, Sr.; QB Purnell Hill, Jr.; RB-CB Brandon Madison, Jr.; WR-CB Ayende Watson, Sr.; WR-CB Brandon Willis, Jr. Dunbar: SS Avery Thurman, Sr.; DE-OT Rafiq Abdul-Wahid, Sr.; DE-OT Joshua Pryor, Sr.; OL-DL Melvin Kiah, Sr.; QB Jarrett Lewis, Jr.; RB Da’Shawn Darien, Sr.; LB Christopher Bazemore, Sr.; WR Kwesi Evans, Soph. programs, to kind of bring the city together and have two different types of schools from two different areas of the city get together and celebrate Baltimore high school football.”
In 1993, MSA officials voted to dissolve the organization, because there was nothing holding it together after the city public schools joined the Maryland Public Secondary Schools Athletic Association in 1992. Public and private school teams didn’t play one another so often after that.
Now there are only a handful of games between public and private school teams each year. Seven Maryland Interscholastic Athletic Association A and B Conference teams will play public school teams this fall. Dunbar will also play Boys’ Latin.
Holley, who graduated from Gilman in 1977, is more nostalgic for the MSA than Smith, who graduated from Dunbar in 1992. Smith prefers the MPSSAA, because his team can play for the state championships — and Dunbar has won nine of them.
“The MSA was great. It was a great thing for its time,” Smith said, “but I would take the state format over the MSA any day.”
With a strong returning contingent, Smith is ready to test the Poets as they aim
for their 10th state title.
“It’s going to be a great atmosphere,” Smith said. “It’s bringing back a lot of history of the MSA, which is great and it does a lot of good things to see a public and a private play. The kids love it, because a lot of kids feel like the private schools are always [considered] superior to the public schools and that has nothing to do with Baltimore City. That’s statewide. A lot of kids want that chance to play those private schools and show what they can do.”
Smith said playing a strong private school team helps prepare his team for the playoffs. Since the teams started practice within two days of each other in August, he feels it’s a great way to see how his team measures up against another of the area’s best programs.
Holley, who took over the defending A Conference champions when Biff Poggi left to take a job with Michigan’s coaching staff, looks at the game the same way.
In addition to the public-vs.-private aspect, Holley said, football fans in Baltimore are eager to see how this team stacks up with Poggi and his staff departed, most of their top players graduated and others transferred.
“I think the jury’s out on Gilman right now,” Holley said. “I think people are wondering what the Gilman of 2016 is going to be like compared to the more recent teams. I think our kids are really excited to get out and reap the reward from their hard work. The kids who stayed and decided they were going to commit to Gilman put a lot of time into it and they’re excited to take the baton on their leg of the race.”
Both teams figure to be contenders in their leagues. Dunbar, which reached the Class 2A state semifinal last fall, is the