Poly’s No. 1 girls basketball team hopes coronavirus doesn’t spoil their dream of winning the program’s first state championship
by Katherine Dunn
For four years, Poly seniors Dasia Townes, Cache’ Wilson and Jada Gross have worked to bring home the first girls state basketball championship in Engineers’ history.
They made it to the final four as sophomores, then reached the title games as juniors. This season, they rose to No. 1 and felt they could take that final step to bask in their own shining moment.
Now that state officials have postponed the state basketball tournaments “until further notice,” all they can do is wait — and wonder whether, amid growing concern over the coronavirus outbreak, their season will continue.
“More than anything I want to have the chance to have this moment with my teammates,” Gross said. “It’s really the fact that we weren’t even given the chance. We don’t know whether we would have won or lost… It’s crazy. It’s like it was snatched from us right when we were there.”
A few hours before the Engineers were to board the bus to Towson University’s SECU Arena last Thursday to play in the Class 3A state semifinals, Maryland Public Secondary Schools Athletic Association officials postponed the games. By then, programs from the Ivy League to the NBA had canceled tournaments or suspended seasons.
Maryland public schools are now in the midst of a two-week closure. MPSSAA officials have canceled all sports practices until at least March 30. Games cannot be played until April 6. Those dates only stand if school is back in session on March 30.
Townes and Wilson found out about the state tournament postponement on social media last Thursday. Gross didn’t know until she went to coach Kendall Peace-Able’s classroom after school where the team, that includes seven seniors, planned to gather until leaving for their 9 p.m. game in Towson.
“I cried,” said Townes. “I was so upset, because for our underclassmen, they have more years to experience it. For the seniors this year, we really, really wanted it, because we’ve been closer and closer every year, so we felt like this is our year to really win it and then it’s like it might not be happening.”
Wilson said, “This year has been one of the best years for us. We went 24-1. We made history countless times this year and the state championship was the peak for us. That was the ultimate goal. You can see it and you can imagine it and then it’s just like, ‘Well, that’s it.” I’m lost for words.”
With or without a state championship, this Poly team has engineered the best season in program history. Guards Townes, Wilson and Gross, who combine for about 30 points per game, lead the way along with LSU-bound Ajae Petty, a 6-2 senior forward who transferred from IND and has been a major factor in the playoffs.
The Engineers earned their first-ever No. 1 ranking after defeating perennial IAAM A Conference champion and then-No. 1 St. Frances for the first time, 70-63, in a showcase game at Morgan State University in January.
On Feb. 25, they edged No. 7 Western to win the Baltimore City championship, 52-48. They rolled through the regional tournament and the state quarterfinal by an average margin of 43 points.
Then the world changed.
Coronavirus began spreading around the country and government officials, grappling for ways to stop it, began shutting down large gatherings, including sport events.
Peace-Able knew the Ivy League had canceled its basketball tournament and that Towson University had started spring break early to move students off campus. She watched sports cancellations snowball, but when she finally got the call from athletic director Phil Thompson, she said, “I was hurt. I’m really hurt for my kids in a lot of ways.”
In her 17th season as Engineers coach, Peace-Able has taken them to the state semifinals nine times and to the title game four times, including last season’s 58-44 loss to Frederick. She’s had to help her teams deal with a lot of disappointment over the years but nothing like this.
“I was having a hard time containing it, because I’ve been down this road 10 times and for some of [the players], it was their third time being down this road,” Peace-Able said.
“To me, it’s a lot of rush to decisions about canceling. I can understand postponement. I absolutely and totally understand all that, but I just don’t get up and saying, ‘Don’t come back to school, colleges, we’re not going to have the NCAA tournament.’ I genuinely don’t get all of that unless you’re telling us all that if we go outside of our homes, we’re going to die tomorrow.”
Peace-Able said she thought the tournament should have been played last weekend with limited spectators as the MPSSAA decided before opting to postpone. She said she supports Gov. Larry Hogan’s directive to close public schools for two weeks, but that didn’t take effect until Monday. The state tournament would have been over by Saturday.
“I don’t think it’s fair to anybody who worked all year for it to be dismissed,” Peace-Able said.
“Delay but certainly not deny… I’m grateful that the state of Maryland hasn’t made the decision [to cancel] yet. I have two more players looking for basketball opportunities and I had the coach from East Carolina coming. The coach from LSU was coming Thursday and he’s not just looking at Ajae. He’s coming to look at the rest. You ruin opportunities when you take these things away and they’re opportunities that you can’t get back.”
Townes (Virginia Commonwealth), Wilson (Maryland-Eastern Shore) and Gross (Bridgewater College) have already signed.
With not much to do on this early spring break, Townes and Wilson said they’d like to produce a video with their teammates and the Poly boys — who are also in the final four and hoping to win their fourth straight state championship.
The girls said they don’t plan to get together — they’re a little leery of the virus — so they want to assemble videos from each player into one statement.
“We’re trying to come out as a whole program rather than just one team,” Townes said. “We want to advocate for the final four, just so we can have it.”
Should they both win titles, it would be only the second time that Class 3A girls and boys teams from the same school won in the same year. DuVal doubled up in 1983.
For now, the girls can only hope the tournament will resume.
“I’m trying not to think about it,” Wilson said. “My college coach told me if I can’t control it, I shouldn’t be too upset about it. If it was to get cancelled, I can’t put it into words what that would mean. It’s like a waiting game. We’re suffering almost. It’s like more anxiety waiting than if it was cancelled.”
That’s a message Peace-Able dreads having to tell them should it come to that.
“I don’t know who wants to deliver that kind of news…” she said. “It’s like they’re all waiting for me to say something and I don’t know what to say. I talked to my assistant coach Tobi Henson [Tuesday] and he said, ‘If the state’s going to stop it here, they should give every kid who made it to the final four a ring if they’re not going to allow them to finish.’ I think they should allow them to finish.”
Pictured above: Poly coach Kendall Peace-Able and her Engineers following their victory, last month, over Western in the Baltimore City championship game at Morgan State University.