SOUTH BURLINGTON –The losses grew tiring for the Burlington High School football team. Defeats to its rival came in many forms in recent years. One year, the Seahorses served as a punching bag in a lopsided decision; the next they absorbed a punch to the gut in a final-second loss.
On Saturday, the Seahorses said enough.
Facing a two-touchdown deficit in the fourth quarter, the Seahorses didn’t fold. They fought back.
Connor Plante hauled in Pete LaBracio’s fade pass to the right corner of the end zone with 4.5 seconds to play and Burlington polished off a pulsating finish for a 34-28 nonleague victory over Rice Memorial.
It was Burlington’s first win over Rice since 2009, and the Seahorse faithful responded as such, emptying the bleachers to rush Bill Landers Field after the final whistle.
“For all of our fans, it’s surreal, it’s absolutely surreal,” said Plante, a four-year varsity player. “It’s been a while and our record against Rice isn’t too great, so for us to come back was definitely worth the little bit of celebration.”
Overcoming five first-half turnovers, pass-happy Burlington turned to sophomore Kevin Garrison, who rushed for three touchdowns and 136 of his game-high 150 yards after the break. And then LaBracio settled down with pinpoint passes late and arguably made the game’s biggest play with his feet.
Down 28-20 with under five minutes to play and staring at fourth-and-long from the Rice 16, LaBracio sidestepped out of the pocket, slipped past a Rice defender and broke free for an 11-yard gain — earning a new set of downs by inches.
“Game over,” Burlington coach Brennan Carney said, if LaBracio doesn’t reach the first-down marker.
Plante: “A lot of teams don’t have a kid who can read that play and pick it up and push forward, by inches, and power through guys to get that last half-yard.”
Rice coach Neil Brodeur said the fourth-down conversion was “a game-changer.”
“Sometimes a 48-minute game comes down to one or two 8-second plays, and that was one of them,” Brodeur said.
One play later, Garrison scored from 5 yards out and Plante, catching a LaBracio rollout pass, dragged one foot down in the end zone for the two-point conversion — a similar play to the one BHS misfired on two years ago in the last-second loss to Rice — to tie the game at 28.
Rice’s ensuing possession ended with a Josh Hale interception on a long third-down pass, setting up the Seahorses’ game-winning, eight-play, 73-yard drive. After staying on the ground for the drive’s first five plays, a holding penalty pushed BHS back to the Rice 46 for a third-and-long situation.
LaBracio, though, floated a ball over the Rice secondary and into the arms of Plante for a 36-yard reception. Two plays later, LaBracio and Plante hooked up again in the corner for the decisive score.
“That was a perfect read, perfect throw,” Carney said of LaBracio’s last TD pass. “That’s what we practice and he couldn’t have thrown it in a better spot.”
Rice worked to leads of 14-0, 21-7 and 28-14, but fatigue set in as Burlington mounted its rally in the closing quarter.
“We were gassed and they were better conditioned and they obviously wanted it more,” Brodeur said. “When you beat somebody for six years straight, at some point they are going to step up and punch right back.
“I hope they make a mark in Division II. They played hard and those kids deserve to win and I hope they have a good season.”
Rice opened the game with a quick scoring drive, quarterback Jack Fitzgerald connecting with Alex Bond on four balls for 49 yards, the last of which covered 20 yards on a fourth-down touchdown pass.
The lead doubled with 2:08 left in the first quarter, Fitzgerald corralling a high snap and slipping up the middle for a 6-yard score. The drive was highlighted by Cam Cousino’s catch-and-run reception of 54 yards.
After LaBracio scored on a QB sneak to get BHS on the scoreboard, three straight turnovers resulted in Rice capitalizing on Cousino’s 15-yard TD dash and a 21-7 halftime lead.
Garrison, on a 13-yard sweep, cut the BHS deficit to 21-14 midway through the third before Rice answered with a nine-play drive that included a pair of fourth-down conversions and concluded with a Cousino 11-yard TD run.
On its next possession, Burlington continued with a bevy of sweeps and counters, Garrison logging 33 of the team’s 37 yards on the scoring drive. Garrison, also a basketball standout, scored on a 5-yard run with 11:18 to play, getting to within 28-20 and putting up BHS in position for the late rally.
“We don’t want to lose to Rice, they don’t want to lose to us,” said LaBracio, who completed 10 of 20 passes for 161 yards. “We knew we had it in us, we just had to find it.”
Carney, in his eighth season at BHS, received praise from Brodeur in the postgame handshake.
“Coach Brodeur gave us the best compliment he’s ever given me: ‘These kids grinded out a win, I haven’t seen them do that since you’ve been there,'” Carney said. “That says something about our kids.
“This means a big deal to BHS for the first time in forever.”
While the celebration was fun, Plante said the season is far too young to let the game become anything more than just a Week 2 victory.
“The fans — I’m so happy they enjoyed this win, but we have to keep pushing forward. We are not even close to halfway,” Plante said.
Bond, who also picked off LaBracio twice, finished with five catches for 60 yards, while Cousino added 68 yards on the ground and Fitzgerald ran for 58.
BHS improves to 2-0; Rice falls to 1-1.