Around this time a year ago, Epe Henriques tasted bitter defeat. Kevin Estep had finished his freshman season on Dunbar High’s junior varsity football team. Saturday afternoon, the two combined to push the Poets’ varsity back to the state championship game.

No. 9 Dunbar got past Fort Hill, 20-14, in a Class 1A state semifinal at Poly’s Lumsden-Scott Stadium. The Poets (12-1 overall) will take on No. 18 Havre de Grace for the state title, Saturday at noon at M & T Bank Stadium.

Estep scored on a 1-yard sneak with three seconds remaining in regulation, capping a 15-play, 65-yard drive. It may not reach the near-legendary status of Dunbar’s winning drive against the Sentinels (9-4) in the final two minutes of the 2008 Class 1A championship game, but the Poets were again able to overcome their western Maryland counterparts.

“It was the same way in 08, Fort Hill was pushing us up and down the field,” said Dunbar coach Lawrence Smith. “When they got behind the sticks, we came up and made a big stop. We got the ball and we drove.”

“I wasn’t starting at the beginning of the season, but I knew I had to stay strong,” said Estep, the smallest person on the field Saturday at 5-foot-4 and 135 pounds. “I knew my team would need me and I wouldn’t let them down.”

Estep completed three of four passes for 28 yards in the drive with Henriques grinding out 34 of his season-high 233 yards. The Joppatowne transfer’s nine-yard carry on second down put the Poets at the Fort Hill 1.

With 22 seconds remaining, Charles Brown was stuffed by the Sentinels’ defense. The Poets, with no timeouts remaining, quickly got back to the line. Estep called his number and initially appeared he was stopped but got across the goal line on second effort.

“My fullback Charles Brown pushed in me for the second effort,” said Estep, who completed six of eight passes for 70 yards and a touchdown. “The first play we ran was ’32-Wedge,’ and my coach said if we don’t get it, line up fast and get it back to me. I called my number and I knew I was going to win it for my team.”

“I felt he was too small and would get hurt at the varsity level, but you can’t measure his heart,” said Smith, who inserted Estep into the starting role in the third game of the season. “He doesn’t have the big arm to complement our receivers but he knows how to run an offense.”

The winning drive atoned for a failed one at the end of the first half where the Poets got the Sentinels’ 1 but ran out of time. After rushing for 120 yards in the opening half, Henriques opened the second half with a 47-yard run. JaQuan Holt followed with a 10-yard run into the end zone for a 14-6 lead.

Fort Hill responded with a 12-play, 60-yard drive as Joseph Howser threw a quick pass across the middle to Justin Dawson who outraced the Poet defense for a 30-yard touchdown. Howser and Dawson connected again for the two-point conversion, tying the game.

garrett clay, deontay mcmanus Establishing a push against Dunbar’s defense, Fort Hill reached the Poets’ 30. On fourth down, Henriques, playing linebacker, pulled down Garrett Clay for a five-yard loss, giving the Poets their final possession with 5:58 left in regulation.

“I remembered the play from film. I saw the ball and I went and got it,” said Henriques, who lost in the state title game last year with Joppatowne to Catoctin. “When you’re a playmaker, you got to step up in big games like this.”

After Dunbar blocked a Fort Hill field goal on the game’s opening possession, the east Baltimore school put Henriques to work on offense. He rushed for 67 yards as part of a 13-play, 93-yard drive that was capped by Estep’s 18-yard pass to Ernest Hawkins.

The Sentinels answered on the first play of the second quarter with Garrett Clay (118 yards rushing) breaking through a hole up the middle and racing 65 yards. The Cumberland school had the momentum going into halftime after Dunbar failed to score from inside the Sentinels’ 2.

But Fort Hill wasn’t able to stop the Poets with the game at stake. The Sentinels, the only team to beat Dunbar in the state finals (1997), fell for the third straight time to the Baltimore City school in postseason play.

“They’re [Dunbar] a good football team and they just beat us today,” said Fort Hill coach Todd Appel. “Our kids fought hard. Someone has to be a winner, someone has to be a loser and we were on the short end. I would like to be on the winning end.”

The Poets will look to add a seventh state crown to their collection next weekend against Havre de Grace. A year after falling short in the state semifinals, Dunbar will again be in familiar surroundings at M & T Bank Stadium.

“Everybody keeps saying Fort Hill-Dunbar 2008, but this is like 2006 with our key players being sophomores on this team,” said Smith, who has 12 seniors on the current roster. “This dynasty is about to kick over.”

No. 9 Dunbar 20, Fort Hill 14
Fort Hill068014
1st Q
D-Hawkins 18 pass fr
om Estep (McManus run)
2nd Q
FH-G. Clay 65 run (kick failed)
3rd Q
D-Holt 10 run (pass failed)
FH-Dawson 30 pass from Howser (Dawson pass from Howser)
4th Q
D-Estep 1 run (pass failed)