During a overcast Saturday evening, two highly ranked South Orange County teams, Mater Dei, a perennial powerhouse, ranked fourth in the CIF Southern Section by the LA Times, third in Orange County, and twenty-fifth in the US by Student Sports magazine, and lesser known Orange Lutheran, ranked nineteenth in the CIF Southern Section by the LA Times and fifth in Orange County, squared off in a rematch of last years game where Mater Dei won in a close final minutes victory and for their respective season openers.
To Irish Fans, this game also features two prominent young men, Anthony Vernaglia of Orange Lutheran and Brandon Nicolas of Mater Dei, who have committed to the University of Notre Dame. Irish Eyes was fortunate enough to be on hand to catch a glimpse of both players in such an important test for both teams.
Recruited as a Linebacker, Anthony Vernaglia is a four year varsity football player and is just as talented on the offensive side playing wide receiver. Irish Eyes had field level viewing of this speedster and was impressed at the versatility and athleticism of the youngster. Irish Eyes saw Anthony run a post route, splitting the defenders and instantly turn to cut outside. If not for him slipping on the turn, it would've been a touchdown, because he had the corner and safety out of position. But what stood out was Anthony's speed and grace.
At 6-4, 215lbs and blessed with long legs, Anthony possesses a long, gazelle like stride and an explosiveness that can strike for a touchdown on any given play. Teamed up with partner in crime, Brendan Circle, the receiving duo accounted for almost 200 yds receiving on an evening where Mater Dei's backfield had no answers to stop the tandem. The highlight of the evening was a 73 yd TD reception by Anthony where he just streaked up field and blew past the cornerback and caught a perfect throw from Seth Blackmore in full stride to put the Lancers up 14-7.
On the defensive side of the ball, Anthony uses his speed and agility to threaten any outside run, blitz or drop back into coverage. Mater Dei's passing game was struggling to find its tempo all night and couldn't find a big play to put them back into the game. The defense, led by Anthony and Middle Linebacker, Brad Wagner, was ferocious attacking the ball and used its speed to disrupt the Mater Dei offense, limiting them to only 165 yds in total offense, 56 yds of that was rushing.
In the midst of the celebration, Orange Lutheran's Coach Jim Kunau had many complimentary words about his Notre Dame bound athlete. "He has a motor that never stops." He said. "God has given him tremendous size and talent. He loves rising to the occasion. It's also the way he practices. He's a gamer, but he's a gamer in practice. And the way he plays in games is the way he plays in practice. It's lights out all the time.
Although his team lost, Brandon Nicolas was a dominant force on both sides of the ball. Defensively, Brandon was consistently penetrating into the backfield, even when he was double teamed. This was noticeable, because the Lancers rarely ran the ball in between the tackles, opting to use their speed to attack the outside and hit the corners. The Lancers only attacked in between the tackles on three series, but Brandon was either the tackler or in on the tackle in someway. On a couple of occasions, Brandon would drive so hard the he literally knocked his man on his rear end. I don't know if it would be considered a pancake, if Brandon was still standing and still look for someone to hit.
Coach Rollinson simply explains what opponents have to deal with when they play him. "They have to account for him, I mean that's obvious," he said. "Tonight, he was double teamed a lot. He's a big, strong, physical kid."
As the opposition, Coach Kunau can only agree with Coach Rollinson's assessment of Brandon. "He's a tremendous player on film," he said. "It's easy to understand why he's one of the most recruited players in America. He's a force on offense and defense… tremendous athleticism and size."
Not to take away from the Orange Lutheran players, because it was a total team effort to not allow Brandon to impact the outcome of the game. Brandon flat out dominated everyone that the Lancers threw at him. They consistently double teamed him only to just hold him long enough so they can move the play away from him.
Coach Kunau reaffirmed what Irish Eyes saw in having to deal with Brandon Nicolas. "We tried to run away from him as much as possible," he laughed. "He's such a force. When we could, we tried to avoid him… there's no question about that. Then sometimes double team him. Even when we did, it didn't always work, he would defeat two of our guys."
Offensively, Brandon displayed his strength as well as his agility. As a pass blocker, Brandon is quick as well as agile. On one particular play, Brandon and the guard next to him were blocking an incoming defensive end, when to his left came a blitzing outside linebacker. Brandon, in one swift, fluid motion, pushed off the defensive end and side stepped in front of the oncoming opponent and immediately stopping the potential threat.
As a run blocker, Brandon just overpowered the guys lining up against him. Brandon would consistently drive his man three to four yards off the ball, leaving Irish Eyes wondering why the Monarchs rarely ran behind his blocking. Yet, you have to give the guy opposite from Brandon credit though, because he kept on fighting, but Brandon was just bigger, stronger, and faster.
After the game, Irish Eyes asked Coach Rollinson what his impressions were of his star lineman. "He's a big, strong physical kid," he said. "I think he has the frame, he definitely has the foot speed, I think he's gonna get bigger, and I think he'll have success there. He's a gentleman. He works very hard academically. He has that innate competitiveness that you want to see."