Lake Braddock all-state quarterback Michael Nebrich and Robinson two-way star Jared Velasquez met near midfield after Friday’s Division 6 Northern Region semifinal matchup. Two of the most talented players in the region, Nebrich and Velasquez showed their respect for one another with a hug and some kind words. While Nebrich walked away from the exchange a one-point winner, Velasquez was left wishing he could have wrapped up the Bruins quarterback while there was still time on the clock.
Nebrich scored the go-ahead touchdown on a 13-yard run with 3:48 remaining in the fourth quarter and the Bruins held on for a 24-23 victory on Nov. 19 at Lake Braddock Secondary School. The top-seeded Bruins will host No. 3 Chantilly in the regional championship game on Saturday, Nov. 27, at 1 p.m.. Lake Braddock defeated Woodson in last year’s regional title game and finished AAA state runner-up.
Lake Braddock’s only loss entering Friday’s regional semifinal against Robinson was a 10-7 setback at home against the Rams on Oct. 1. During Friday’s first half, Robinson once again stymied Lake Braddock’s high-powered spread offense, holding the Bruins to a field goal and entering halftime with a 17-3 lead. But things changed quickly in the second half as Lake Braddock swung momentum in its favor with inspired play on both sides of the ball.
Lake Braddock forced a three-and-out on Robinson’s opening possession of the third quarter and the Bruins responded with a five-play, 63-yard touchdown drive that used only 1 minute and 11 seconds. Nebrich connected with Tanner Quigley for a 41-yard touchdown pass to pull within seven. The Bruins defense forced another three-and-out on the Rams’ ensuing possession and Lake Braddock once again answered with a quick touchdown. This time, the Bruins’ four-play, 67-yard drive needed only 30 seconds and was capped by a 3-yard scoring pass from Nebrich to Matt Zanellato.
"We knew coming into this game that we could outscore them; they could not outscore us," said Zanellato, a senior who transferred to Lake Braddock from Robinson during the off season. "We score quick. [The Rams] like their beat-you-into-the-ground long drives. We knew that we could score quick and come back. Coming out in the second half and getting those first two scores was real good."
While quick scores got Lake Braddock back into the game, the Bruins borrowed a page from Robinson’s style guide to score the game winner. The Rams’ wing-T offense is designed to gain yards in small chunks while chewing up time. Robinson’s four scoring drives on Friday averaged 12 plays, including a 16-play 80-yard march to take a 23-17 lead with 9:31 remaining in the fourth quarter. The drive took 7:43 off the clock and ended with a 2-yard run by Joe Meier on fourth-and-goal, but a blocked extra point by Lake Braddock’s Emmanuel Adetunji left the door open for the Bruins.
Lake Braddock responded with a 13-play, 75-yard drive to recapture the lead. The Bruins’ march drained 5:35 off the clock and included two fourth-down conversions by Nebrich. The University of Connecticut bound quarterback gained 8 yards on fourth-and-7 and scampered 13 yards for the game-winning touchdown on fourth-and-1.
"Our offense can put up points real fast," Nebrich said. "We’ve been doing that throughout the whole year. We knew at halftime we had a lot of game left. … When [the fourth-and-1 play] opened up, I thought I just had the first down because I knew I got 3 yards. I saw the safety come over the top and I saw he overplayed me to the right and I just cut back and I was in."
Robinson had a final possession with 3:39 remaining in the contest. The Rams crossed into Lake Braddock territory in the final minute but lost a fumble on second-and-7 at the Bruins’ 44-yard line.
Nebrich was his usual dual-threat self, passing for 286 yards and two touchdowns while rushing for 92 yards and a score.
"It’s very frustrating," Robinson all-district cornerback Thomas Petrocci said of Nebrich’s ability to run. "They have a lot of options they can go with and it’s hard to stop them all."
In the season’s first meeting, Petrocci snagged a pair of interceptions and limited former teammate Zanellato to two catches for 51 yards. On Friday, Petrocci made several nice defensive plays, but Zanellato finished with five catches for 133 yards and a score.
"You could tell he definitely wanted to get his catches this game," Petrocci said. "I knew it was going to be like that. He just played his heart out. He wanted it just as much as I did and he ended up coming out on top tonight."
Zanellato praised Petrocci’s effort.
"I have tremendous respect for the kid," the Bruins receiver said. "He really knows how to play corner. He’s one of the best corners I’ve ever gone against."
The evening couldn’t have started much better for Robinson, which scored on its first three possessions. After stopping Lake Braddock on downs during the game’s opening drive, Robinson took a 7-0 lead on a 4-yard touchdown run by Kambulu Musokotwane. Kicker Garrick LaBriola connected on a 26-yard field goal on Robinson’s next possession, and the Rams later extended their lead to 17-3 when quarterback Mike LoPresti completed a 10-yard fade to Patrick Baker late in the first half.
The Bruins maintained their composure, however, and battled back to win.
"I think we refused to lose," Lake Braddock head coach Jim Poythress said. "We were in shock a little bit at first. We fell back, but we kept fighting, kept clawing. We talked about it all week. ‘Whatever you do, don’t give up. Play all 48 minutes’ and we did. It came down to the last second. It was a heck of a game.
"Honestly, [there was] no Vince Lombardi speech [at halftime]. We talked about it all week. ‘Your career will end if you don’t get it done.’ They stayed focused. We weren’t … yelling and screaming. We just came out and played."
Robinson’s Velasquez carried 28 times for 132 yards and caught one pass for 13 yards in his typical workhorse fashion. He also attempted a pass that led to an interference penalty against Lake Braddock, which set up a Rams touchdown.
"Jared is a classy guy," Nebrich said. "In my mind, he’s one of the most respected players in the Northern Region. I’ve got nothing but love for that kid and I hope he does great things in college."
Velasquez, who earned first-team all-Concorde District honors as a running back, defensive back and kick returner, said he would remember his career at Robinson fondly, though Friday’s loss will stick in his mind.
After a hard-fought playoff battle between rivals was decided by the slimmest of margins, Velasquez was left with a hug from Nebrich and the hope that he would get another chance to play against the Lake Braddock star.
"We respect each other on the field," Velasquez said. "We don’t [trash] talk at all. We play with our hearts. He’ll [play college football] somewhere and I’ll be somewhere. Hopefully, we’ll meet up."