BALTIMORE — Being outnumbered, outsized and likely underrated heading into a challenging playoff matchup against an undefeated program did not stop the Frederick Douglass High School football team from fulfilling its mission on Nov. 24.
Running back Zavier Price recorded 11 carries for 72 yards and a touchdown, and quarterback Devin Harding finished 7-of-12 passing for 98 yards and a touchdown to lead Douglass to a win over Paul Laurence Dunbar (Baltimore), 20-6, in the semifinal round of the Maryland Public Secondary Schools Athletic Association (MPSSAA) 1A state playoffs at Baltimore Polytechnic Institute’s Lumsden-Scott Stadium.
Entering the game, No. 1 Dunbar was a higher-ranked team and appeared to have the clear advantage over Douglass. The Poets had only given up 28 points all season and were riding a 23-game winning streak, running through competition with relative ease as they were coming off a 2017 state championship.
However, the Eagles found a way to disrupt Dunbar’s offensive flow and capitalized off the Poets’ mistakes late in the game to cruise to a win, clinching a spot in the Maryland state championship for the first time in four seasons.
Douglass Head Coach Julius Pinkney said the Eagles’ resilience was the key factor to the phenomenal win.
“We’ve been short-staffed, short-handed all year. That’s just the way we’ve played,” he said. “We had guys step up, and pull away and keep us going. And you know, we don’t let anything faze us. That’s the biggest thing.”
The game began rough, muddled with turnovers, three-and-outs, dropped passes, penalties and a myriad of other blunders. To put Dunbar in an uncomfortable position early, Harding threw a six-yard touchdown pass to Alajah Dawson to put the Eagles up, 6-0, late in the first quarter.
After inducing a few turnovers, Dunbar responded with its only score of the day by running back Andre Brandon on a two-yard rush into the end zone to tie the score, 6-6, with 2:10 remaining in the first half.
Both teams went scoreless in the third, which was characterized by fumbles, penalties and bad snaps. The scoring drought ended when running back Geo-di Tolbert broke loose for a 66-yard touchdown run midway through the fourth and Price ran in the two-point conversion to put the Eagles up 14-6.
The Douglass sideline cheered, realizing they were moments away from pulling off an upset.
On the following drive, the Eagles’ defense hindered the Poets from gaining any yardage on the ground. To put the game away, Price scurried for 40 yards to the endzone making it 20-6 with 1:15 remaining.
Dunbar quarterback Derrick Dunn rushed possession after possession in an attempt to respond with another touchdown but fell short about four yards away from the end zone as time expired.
“I feel like as a team we performed great under pressure and against adversity. Playing as a brotherhood and a family, I feel like we can build on that even more,” Price said following the win.
Price said that togetherness was the key to sealing the 1A state title on Dec. 1.
Pinkney lauded Price’s ability to execute throughout the afternoon as he acknowledged how coachable and industrious the junior is.
“He performed great. He just kept pounding away,” Pinkney said of Price.
“He’s an easy-to-coach kid, does everything you ask, shows up to practice every day, works his butt off, and you know, it’s good to see him get his just due at the end of the game.”
Though much of the game lacked coherence and was cold and rainy, Pinkney said those factors did not have much of an effect on the outcome. Throughout the season, Douglass has had to adapt to playing in adverse situations, Pinkney continued.
Harding said he was elated after the win despite the mistakes he and his teammates made.
“We had a little issue with fumbles with the ball, but we came together as a team and got the W,” Harding said.
“I think we performed well today. Great win.”
The six-foot sophomore pointed out what it will take to defeat an adamant Fort Hill (12-0) team the upcoming weekend.
“We just gotta prepare. Execute, execute. Offense – we gotta put points on the board and get defensive stops. Execute, and get the W,” Harding said.
“We play in stressful games. That’s just been our team all year. So we knew if we could stress Dunbar – put them in a situation where they’re not accustomed to – we thought we would have a chance to win down the stretch.”
Running back Andre Brandon, who eclipsed 2,000 career rushing yards on Nov. 24, identified the main reason for the loss to Douglass, an opponent the Poets (11-1) perhaps underestimated entering the game.
“The biggest difference was the miscues; you know, we fell behind the chains, and that messed us up,” Brandon said.
Brandon said he plans to play collegiate football and is eyeing Maryland, Temple, Kentucky, Old Dominion and a few other Division I programs.
Dunbar Head Coach Lawrence Smith attributed dropped passes, questionable calls and many other uncharacteristic mistakes to the loss.
“In state semifinal games, you got to take advantage of your opportunities,” Smith said, also noting how his team became one-dimensional when they weren’t able to make plays through the air as they have been all season.
“You cannot miss opportunities, and that’s exactly what happened.”
Douglass hopes to win its second state championship in program history on Dec. 1 when it squares off against Fort Hill at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium in Annapolis at 3:30 p.m. Their only championship came in 2014 when Douglass pummeled Dunbar (Baltimore) 38-0 in the MPSSAA 2A state title game.