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Sam Brand was blunt: No shortcuts. Since the first recorded Maryland public school athletic season in 1947, a basketball state title has yet to be won at Baltimore Polytechnic Institute.
In fact, the Engineers have only one state tournament appearance — in 2013 during a 20-7 season — and even then, a 62-50 loss to Magruder in the semifinals thwarted the chance of vanquishing the spell.
Getting there — University of Maryland’s Xfinity Center for the state final-four — and winning two games is no easy feat. If anything, last year was an indication of how ruthless the journey is.
Poly bolstered, arguably, the most talented team in Class 3A with the likes of college-bound seniors 6-foot-8 center Jordan Jones and point guard Christian Chong-Qui, along with a pair of Division I recruits — 6-foot-6 small forward De’Vondre Perry (Temple commit) and 6-foot-5 guard Demetrius Mims — but had their title hopes slip away in the stunning 66-46 loss to Woodlawn in the second round of the playoffs.
Even after the crushing defeat, cutting corners isn’t permitted. This year, Brand coordinated what could very well be the toughest non-conference schedule in the country that included national powerhouses like Chicago’s Simeon, Brooklyn’s Bishop Loughlin, Philadelphia’s Imhotep Charter and D.C.’s H.D. Woodson.
“I like to put us against anybody, anywhere,” Brand said. “I’ve been asked this question a few times, and I believe the only reason not to put your guys up to the toughest challenge is to play for state seeding. I don’t believe that’s more important than giving our guys opportunities. Our guys have played in front of 50 Division I coaches, no question.”
Poly (11-6) also faced MIAA neighbors St. Frances and Mount St. Joseph, both harnessing ample Division I recruits, as well as Baltimore County’s Perry Hall, a Class 4A semifinalist a year ago and a top-five ranked team in the MSA Top 25.
The hardwood trek is unlike anything an MPSSAA team has seen in a while. It’s comparable, however, to old school Dunbar, back when the Poets won the 1983 national championship with three first-round NBA draft choices — Muggsy Bogues, Reggie Williams and Reggie Lewis. David Wingate, a second-round selection, played on the Dunbar national championship team also.
“The schedule we played this year, it’s the best public school schedule since Dunbar way back when, when Muggsy Bogues played,” Perry said. “We built the legacy here at Poly. Now, we have to live up to the standards.”
The legacy Perry mentioned is an evolving narrative. Sure, the foundation of eventually forming a national powerhouse is in place. For instance, this season, Poly handed H.D. Woodson their first loss in nearly two calendar years. They also went toe-to-toe with nationally ranked Simeon — the alma mater of NBA superstar Jabari Parker and former NBA MVP Derrick Rose — erasing a double-digit deficit to lose by one.
The reality is, end results keep Poly from being a finished nationally renowned product.
Decades of potential-packed seasons have fizzled into empty notions, with none more recent than last year. Poly rolled to the Baltimore City A-league championship and appeared to be the favorite in Class 3A, but it all unraveled in the 20-point meltdown loss to Woodlawn.
“That game is going to be with me pretty much for the rest of my life,” Perry said, reflecting on last year’s Baltimore Poly team that went 19-6. “We had a great team. It was a big upset … it brings more motivation to this program to not let history repeat itself.”
“He brought that (crap) up to me, too,” he said, referring to last year’s second-round playoff loss.
“Just a bad game at the wrong time,” he later added.
Hiccups happen, and are especially prone on elevated stages with immense expectations. Calling last season a wake-up call would put it mildly, however. Though the future is in good hands, Brand knows this Poly team can’t fold like a cheap beach chair this time around.
Perry, who recently eclipsed the 1,000-point plateau, is now a senior. Faltering this year means his legacy goes with it.
Three-year varsity player DeShaun Mosley and 6-foot-7 center Kyshon Tate are seniors as well. Mims — a four-star Class of 2018 recruit by ESPN who has six Division I offers — and freshman point guard Rahim Ali solidify a starting five destined to win it all.
“We don’t take that lightly,” Brand said of the lofty expectations. “I’d be lying if I say it’s not in the back of my mind. I want a state championship here, but I want another city championship first. We have a gauntlet to go through. I’m looking forward to doing it.”
Poly will most likely end up with a No. 3, 4 or 5 seed in the Class 3A North Section I region in late February. When weighing the advantages of securing home-court in the playoffs with a cupcake-esque schedule, or being battle-tested sculpted by a grueling journey, Brand will take option two any day of the week.
“We want to be a nationally recognized basketball program,” he said. “We work hard to do it that way, on the court and in the classroom. That’s how we’re going to do it. We’re not going to do it by ducking anybody, or by not playing the best teams we can.”
Poly is currently 8-0 in Baltimore City play, highlighted with a seven-point win against then No. 2 Lake Clifton on January 20 and four 30-plus-point victories.
Naturally, Brand and the Engineers will adhere the one-day-at-a-time cliché with a short-term goal of capturing another Baltimore City conference title. Edmondson, Patterson and Dunbar also await on the regular season schedule. After that, all gloves are off.
“If we lock in on just us, we’re going to get it done,” Ali said. “It’s coming. (A state championship) is coming this year.”
When Brand took over Poly basketball, he set out a blueprint to put the relatively unknown institution just off I-83 on the map. Day by day, he’s inched closer and closer. One final achievement remains, and when it’s all said and done, Brand, Perry and the Poly boys basketball program could author a lasting legacy on a prestigious list: the 15-time state title winners Dunbar; NBA perennials Carmelo Anthony, Bogues and Rudy Gay; University of Maryland hall-of-famers Keith Booth and Juan Dixon.
In order for that to come to fruition, one thing, and one thing only, must happen.
“It’s time to take over,” Perry said. “And win on out.”