It was another classic dogfight between the Washington Catholic Athletic Conference's two powers, DeMatha and Good Counsel. Just two weeks earlier, Good Counsel had upset their archrivals in the regular season finale, 28-24. Now, they were less than 20 minutes away from turning the same trick in the 2007 championship game.
With the score tied at 7 in the third quarter, DeMatha methodically moved downfield, but their offense stalled at the 25-yard line. Although their defense had held the Falcons all game, Stags coach Bill McGregor rolled the dice. He placed the fate of DeMatha's - the most storied program in the state -- season on the right leg of a kicker who a few months earlier was playing Pop Warner ball.
"I didn't have a doubt in my mind [he would make the kick]," McGregor said of then-freshman phenom Michael Branthover. "Michael doesn't feel pressure, like some robot. I mean, nothing fazes him, even as a freshman."
In the most intense situation he'd ever experienced, Branthover allowed himself one deep breath. Then he took three steps back, two steps left, turned his hips and waited. At the snap, he strode forward, kept his head down, brought his leg back and pointed his toe out.
His foot was about to unleash hell.
Branthover connected solidly, the loud thump echoing through U.S. Marine Corps Stadium. The 42-yard kick sailed high, far and straight -- a guided missile that split the uprights with room to spare. DeMatha went on to win 12-7.
"It was just like practice," Branthover said three years later. "I always practice under pressure, so when it comes to games it's no different. I numb myself to the surroundings. In that game I stepped up, did what was asked of me and we won."
Thus began Branthover's brilliant career at DeMatha. Other Stags have dominated the headlines over the last three years, but Branthover has been a once-in-a-generation weapon. In his career, he has converted over 90 percent of his field goals and extra points, recorded touchbacks on 80 percent of his kickoffs and, as a punter, pinned teams inside the 10-yard line too many times to count.
Last year the first-team All-State performer converted 6-of-7 field goals, hit a career-long 44-yarder against St. John's, was 56-of-58 on extra points, recorded 54 touchbacks (34 straight at one point) and averaged 4.1 seconds of hangtime on punts.
With a leg like Sebastian Janikowski (the high school version), accuracy like Matt Stover and an uncanny ability to stay cool under pressure, the 5-foot-11, 181-pound rising senior may just be the best kicker ever in Maryland high school history.
"In 28 years as head varsity coach at DeMatha, I have never had a better kicker or punter than Michael," McGregor said. "And I've had some great ones."
He isn't kidding. McGregor's nephew, Pat Fisher, kicked for LSU, won two national championships and was named First Team All-SEC. Lee McDonald, who is Branthover's current kicking coach, kicked at Rutgers. Dave DeArmas was a First-Team All-America who went on to Maryland. Branthover's immediate predecessor, Kilgo Livingston, earned a full-ride to Georgetown.
"And he's better than all of them," McGregor deadpanned. "He's money in the bank."
This success has all been a rather surreal experience for Branthover. Three years ago he never expected to be at DeMatha, never expected to be a full-time kicker and most definitely did not expect to be one of the best kicking prospects in the nation.
In the youth leagues, Branthover was a fairly talented wide receiver, cornerback and safety. When his coaches held kicking tryouts, Branthover, who played a little soccer growing up, volunteered "just for the heck of it." After the brief workout, the coaches handed Branthover the job. Branthover handled it well, but he was far from the second coming of Ray Guy.
"I was just having fun out there, and I wasn't serious about it at all," Branthover said. "Then some guys from DeMatha came down and asked me to kick. Before I know it I'm going to DeMatha as a kicker. I mean, I thought I was going to be a wide receiver or safety in high school. Kicking wasn't exactly one of my specialties."
But Branthover wasn't going to turn down a scholarship from DeMatha either. So he began his transformation to a full-time kicker. He headed to kicking camps, worked with specialists and consulted other kickers (notably Livingston). Suddenly, his right leg became his single, most precious commodity.
"His work ethic over the years had been unbelievable," McGregor said. "Every practice - punts, kickoffs, field goals, right, left, middle - I've never seen anything like it. He's gotten to the point where he can place punts anywhere. And on kickoffs we have to tell him to ease off just so we can practice kick coverage."
During the offseason Branthover works exclusively with McDonald on his accuracy and technique. Then he hits the weight room, where he focuses on building leg strength to prevent injuries and fatigue. By the time the season starts, Branthover's legs are like rubber. He can kick about 50 balls a day -- including punts, kickoffs and field goals -- five times a week, which is an astounding number for a high school kicker.
"Actually, I used to do more than 50," Branthover said. "My sophomore year I did a lot more and then I pulled my groin and I got worn out. Now I monitor my kicks so I don't outkick myself."
How's he do it? Simple: He's a true athlete who happens to kick, according to McGregor. Unlike many kickers, who specialize in one skill and look more like chemistry nerds than football players, Branthover could probably be a starting wide receiver for any other school. He's in the weight room as much as DeMatha's linemen, he runs and practices with the skills players and he's a starting outfielder on the varsity baseball team.
"We'll be doing 7-on-7s in the spring and Michael will look at me like there's something wrong with me when I don't let him go in," McGregor said, laughing. "He tells me, 'Coach, I can do this.' He's just begging to play wide receiver, but I'm worried about him getting hurt. So it's my fault he's not a starting wide receiver."
Branthover's athleticism and rigorous workout regimen have endeared him to his teammates. Stereotypes suggest kickers are abnormal head cases and flakes who don't quite fit in. Branthover defies the rule.
"Heck, I'm a two-sport athlete," Branthover said. "I'm not one of those guys who comes to practice and just kicks a bunch of balls while the rest of the team runs. I'm actually part of the team. I know all the guys, I'm friends with most of them and no one makes fun of me. It's great."
It probably helps that he does his job well, too.
For all Branthover's physical prowess, it's his mental toughness that separates him from other kicking prospects. Any Ray Guy-wannabe knows bad psychology can kill even the best kickers. Only a select few can line up in a state championship with the game on the line and thousands of eyes boring into them and still have enough moxie to do their job.
Branthover did it as a mere freshman, and he's continued to do it in the two years since then.
McGregor points to the WCAC championship game last year, when Branthover almost single-handedly controlled the game. In a low-scoring battle with Good Counsel (again) where field position meant everything, Branthover pinned the Falcons inside the 10-yard line four times.
"When the pressure was on and we needed a big punt, he delivered," McGregor said. "I mean, he's a baseball player and he's used to seeing a 3-2 pitch with the bases loaded and making something happen. To him, pressure kicks and punts are nothing new."
Sure, Branthover can convert under pressure. But the true litmus test for kickers is their ability to bounce back from failure.
Branthover hasn't shanked many kicks, but he did have a key miss against Good Counsel during the regular season last year.
"I'd be lying if I said I didn't get frustrated after I missed; I felt like I let my team down," Branthover said. "But I calmed down, talk to my kicking coach and put it out of my mind. I knew I had to be ready for my next kick.
"The key is confidence," he continued. "And I have confidence."
Naturally, after he missed against Good Counsel, Branthover nailed the next one.
So he can kick a field goal 50-plus yards, he can split the uprights on a kickoff, he can place a punt anywhere he wants and he can kick under pressure.
So why hasn't Branthover, maybe the best kicking prospect in state history, landed a Division I offer?
It's a question that leaves McGregor, who has sent more kids to Division I schools than anyone, perplexed.
"I can't figure it out," McGregor said. "If anyone on this team should have an offer, he should. He's a no-brainer. Anyone who needs a kicker or a punter should take him."
Branthover, although frustrated, is a realist. He realizes kickers rarely land Division I scholarships, no matter how good they are.
"Kickers aren't wide receivers, corners or linemen; scholarships for us are rare," said Branthover, who has received looks from Virginia Tech and Iowa. "You usually have to walk-on and earn a scholarship."
That being said, both Branthover and his coach believe he'll eventually land an offer. Otherwise, McGregor said, schools will be missing out on a potential NFL prospect.
McGregor has spoken to renowned kicking coaches and recruiting consultants, and the consensus on Branthover is this: He could be one of the best college kickers in years.
Some predict that if Branthover continues to develop he could be a first-round draft pick like Sebastian Janikowski.
"I don't know about that," McGregor said. "But can he kick on Sundays?