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November 11, 2009

Owls swoop into playoffs, soar past expectations

Dundalk coach Mike Downes called a team meeting. After winning their first two games, the Owls had dropped three straight and were dangerously close to repeating another dismal season. The losing needed to end. Now.

"We had a 'Come to Jesus' meeting and I told the kids that the last five weeks were all playoff games," Downes said. "I said a 7-3 record gets us to the playoffs but 6-4 doesn't. Lose one game and we go home. We went on a five-game winning streak and made it in."

Five-game winning streaks are commonplace for perennial playoff contenders. But Dundalk? Implausible. Impossible even.

Of the 64 teams who are participating in the Maryland State playoffs this weekend perhaps none is more surprising than the Owls, the fourth seed in the 2A North Region. Dundalk is coming off a 3-7 season, preceded by two straight one-win campaigns. But this year they finished 7-3, and -- thanks to City's loss last week -- are postseason-bound for the first time in eight years.

"This has been an unbelievable run," said Dundalk's fourth-year athletic director Justin Nash. "The kids are starting to believe, the community is starting to believe. It's been extremely special."

Downes, a former police officer who now works for the government, came to Dundalk three years ago after 14 years of coaching at Baltimore schools such as Parkville, Dulaney and Sparrows Point. He inherited a program that won one game the year before and had recently suffered through an 0-10 season (2004). They hadn't had a single winning season since that playoff aberration eight years ago.

"Dundalk has been losing for so long that it became apart of their mentality," Downes said. "The attitude coming home on the bus after getting 50 points put on us was just like if we'd won by three touchdowns. It wasn't a big deal to them."

Downes attacked that attitude like an angry linebacker hitting a tackling dummy. He held the players accountable for losses, making them feel it the next week in practice. But a coach's wrath isn't the best way to tap into a teenager's psyche. So Downes put the onus on the seniors to guide their peers.

"The coaches looked to the seniors to be leaders," said senior running back Tavon Henley, the team's main offensive threat. "The coaches made us work hard, but now, when we lose, we run suicides ourselves based on how many points we lose by.

"We didn't care about losing the last few years," Henley continued. "I guess guys were out there just playing around and having fun. But this year we just want to win so badly. All it took was a little bit of leadership."

Preaching leadership and accountability were essential to fixing the problem, but that was only one small battle. To win the war, Downes had to revamp an entire culture, a process that is still ongoing.

Before the coach could even think about changing the losing mentality, however, Downes needed Dundalk's students to care about football. In 2005, 43 percent of the student body was ineligible to participate in athletics, according to the coach. Many of them were potential football players, who shrugged off the fourth quarter marking period and were thus banned from sports the next fall. That doesn't happen much anymore.

"The coaches will walk the hallways to make sure we're in class," said senior tackle Courvoisi Colvin, a 6-foot-2, 315-pound tackle. "And then they'll come in the classroom and make sure we're actually doing our work."

Downes scored a victory in the classroom, but he didn't work any Disney miracles on the field his first year. The Owls finished 1-8.

The slow start can be partially attributed to the division Dundalk played in. Prior to this season the Owls competed in the football-rich, ultra-competitive 3A division. This year Dundalk moved to the smaller 2A division. That doesn't mean the 2A is full of patsies - Dundalk played four teams that made the playoffs this year - but the schools were more comparable to Dundalk's student body.

"We did benefit from moving down to the 2A, which is where we really belong," Downes said. "We're more able to compete at this level."

But there are more challenges ahead. Unlike most schools in the Baltimore area, Dundalk is not a "magnet" institution. Magnet schools can draw in students from outside their district and actively recruit players.

"It's a big disadvantage," Downes said. "A lot of our local athletes go to other schools like Eastern Tech and Sparrows Point. We're only able to get the kids in our area; we don't recruit."

That means no "feeder" programs either, which start preparing middle schoolers for high school football. Most of the freshmen who show up at Dundalk haven't put on a jock strap in their lives, much less donned a helmet and hit someone. So in order to get those raw, untrained, prepubescent kids ready for varsity football Downes had more work to do.

With the support of Nash and the administration, he reinvented the entire football program, starting with the junior varsity. He put an emphasis on weight lifting and strength training. When Colvin first started playing in the 10th grade he tried to bench press 135 pounds but couldn't move the bar. Now he's benching 375.

Besides hitting the weights, Downes stressed fundamentals. He brought in coaches who were willing, patient teachers, such as Eric Lindsey, Brian Powell, Jim Hirz, Andrew Deming and his two sons, Sean and Mike Downes. They relate to the athletes and push them to succeed.

"The coaches have really made it tough on us in practice," said quarterback Alven Thomas. "In the years past we didn't take football seriously; we didn't practice that long and we didn't really care. But it's a different feeling. There's a winning attitude now."

Colvin clearly remembers his deficient 10th grade self. He couldn't bench press, he couldn't run and he had worse technique than a grandmother shooting free throws. Now, he's one of the premier tackles in Baltimore's 2A division.

"I'll admit I was pretty bad at first," Colvin said. "They've helped me a lot with my technique. And in my sophomore year I couldn't run 20 yards without stopping. So the coaches would run behind me and say, 'Push it CC, push it.' And I eventually got better."

The entire program started getting better right alongside CC. Last year Dundalk made progress - if three wins can be considered progress - and this year they shocked Baltimore by qualifying for the playoffs. Better yet, the jayvee finished a perfect 9-0 and gave up a total of eight points all season. That means Dundalk shouldn't be just a one-year wonder but a consistent contender.

"We have a great coaching staff and the kids have bought into the program and want to be apart of the rebuilding process here," Nash said. "A lot of kids in the past wanted to go to private schools or magnet schools just because we haven't been putting up the wins. We have kids who want to play at Dundalk now."

Now comes the next test - the playoffs. Dundalk is pitted against Chesapeake, a team that lost just one game in the regular season and defeated the Owls 20-7 earlier this year. The Owls are heavy underdogs and not many expect them to win.

After practice on Monday Downes gathered his troops. He congratulated them on a fine season before asking each of them a poignant question: Are we just happy to be in the playoffs?

"No way," said senior tight end Jon Bynaker, who has eight touchdowns. "We're here to win this…we're going to give it all we've got."

It won't be easy pulling off the upset, but no one at Dundalk is conceding defeat. The Owls have three major offensive weapons in Henley, Thomas and Bynaker. They boast two stout linemen in Colvin and Ryan Geouge, four terrific linebackers in Bynaker, Jawan Lipscomb, Didi Ibe and Garrett Hadel and a shutdown corner in Jordan Lomax. Ever since the midseason swoon, Dundalk has been unstoppable.

"Chesapeake beat us at the beginning of the season, but we weren't at our best," Henley said. "Right now we're at our best and Chesapeake can't beat us the way we're playing now. We're going to win."

That losing mentality at Dundalk? Long gone.


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