Lake Braddock High’s 35-27 football loss to Battlefield of Haymarket in a Virginia State AAA semifinals playoff game last Saturday afternoon was the result of too many costly turnovers by the home team Bruins as well as their struggles in keeping star quarterback Michael Nebrich protected.
It was a rough way to end the season for Lake Braddock (12-2), the two-time Northern Region champions who lost for just the second time all season and missed an opportunity of returning to the state championship game for a second straight year.
“I thought they had a good team and went after it,” said Lake Braddock coach Jim Poythress, of Battlefield. “We battled well to the end. The bottom line is that we turned the ball over.”
Nebrich, who had one of the best careers at quarterback in the history of high school football in Virginia, could not overcome a Battlefield defense that sacked him eight times and forced him into two turnovers that resulted in defensive touchdowns for the Bobcats.
“We saw some things we could do against their offensive line,” said Battlefield head coach Mark Cox, of his team’s defensive pass pressure on Nebrich throughout the game. “The guys put pressure on him all game long. We played a great defensive game.”
Cox, the former star quarterback of Annandale High School, credited Battlefield defensive coordinator Paul Labazzetta, known throughout Northern Region circles for his many years as the W.T. Woodson High wrestling coach, with coming up with the winning game plan.
“Lab put together some nice blitz packages,” said Cox.
“They mixed things up with some blitzes and got to him,” said Poythress, who also credited the Bobcats’ secondary with good coverage at times.
Yes, it was a difficult day for the entire Lake Braddock offense in terms of protecting its star player in the pocket and holding onto the football. In all, the Bruins turned the ball over four times, three on lost fumbles.
Even with all of that, the high-powered offense still managed to put 27 points on the scoreboard and the Bruins stayed in the contest until the final two minutes. And Nebrich put up sensational numbers, completing 26 of 33 passes for 345 yards and three touchdowns. He was held in check running the ball, managing 47 yards on 23 attempts.
“He’s still the best player I’ve ever coached,” said Poythress, of his star signal caller.
<b>THE TWO BATTLEFIELD</b> defensive touchdowns, in the end, were simply too much for the Bruins to overcome. The first, with the home team Bruins ahead, 3-0, occurred in the opening quarter when Nebrich, on a third-and-12 play from the Lake Braddock four yard line, was hit hard by a Bobcat pass rusher as he was in his throwing motion in the pocket. The ball came loose and was recovered by a Battlefield player in the end zone.
Later in the first half, after Lake Braddock had regained the lead, 10-7, Nebrich, on a first down at the Battlefield 45, set up and threw a medium-range pass to the left side of the field. There appeared to be a cross-up somewhere as there was no receiver in that area. Battlefield senior defensive back Jason Hoepker probably could not believe his good fortune as the aerial went right to him. He intercepted the pass before returning the ball untouched 63 yards for a startling touchdown. For good measure, Hoepker, also the Bobcats’ kicker, booted the extra point to give the visitors a 14-10 lead with just 20 seconds left in the half.
Incredibly, Lake Braddock, after a Battlefield squib kick on the ensuing kickoff set the Bruins up at their own 40, moved the football into field goal territory in the closing seconds, thanks to back-to-back pass plays from Nebrich to senior receiver Chris Williams of 15 and 19 yards that put the ball at the Bobcats’ 26. Then, on the final play of the half, Lake Braddock kicker Nick Weiler drilled a low, zooming kick that cleared the goalposts by a large margin to get the Bruins within 14-13.
“It was frustrating in the first half because we just gave them their points,” said Nebrich. “They had blitzes and came after me.”
Battlefield’s offense, which had not accounted for any points in the first half, came up big midway through the third quarter following a Lake Braddock lost fumble that set the Bobcats up at the Bruins’ 46 yard line. Battlefield needed just one play to score a touchdown – a long pass play from quarterback Ryan Swingle to Jeff Beathard. Bruin defensive back Eric Long, on the coverage, nearly knocked the pass away before Beathard caught it at the 10 and took it in for the score.
Later in the third quarter, Battlefield, ahead 21-13, got a huge special teams play on a 43 yard punt return that set the Bobcats up at the Lake Braddock 12 yard line. The result was a Battlefield touchdown three plays later on a one-yard QB keeper by Swingle to make the score 28-13.
The Bruins never gave up, putting together two long fourth quarter scoring drives that were capped by touchdown catches by senior receiver Matt Zanellatto from 12 and 24 yards out. But in between the two Lake Braddock touchdowns, Battlefield, needing to regain the momentum after the Bruins had crept within 28-20, put together a game-defining, 85-yard scoring march that put them ahead 35-20 with two minutes, 55 seconds left.
Lake Braddock, despite coming back with the game’s final touchdown with 1:47 left, failed to recover the ensuing onside kick try and Battlefield, to the delight of their vocal, celebratory fan base stationed in the visitors’ bleachers, ran out the remainder of the clock to earn a trip to Charlottesville for this weekend’s title game Saturday versus Hermitage of Richmond.
“We were holding our breath on the onsides kick,” said Cox. “If they get that [recovery] they can go down the field and score. They have the type of offense where we couldn’t let them get the ball back.”
It was a satisfying victory for a Battlefield squad that, a year earlier, had seen its 2009 season end with a state semifinals loss to the same Lake Braddock squad.
For the Bruins, their dream of getting a state crown fell two victories short.
“It’s really tough,” said Nebrich, of his final game in a Lake Braddock football uniform. “This program’s been built on a lot of heart.”