Girls’ varsity water polo claims second straight league championship

Ellie Neuman, Staff Reporter

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  • The girl’s varsity water polo team celebrates in the water as the game ends and the Panthers claim their momentous victory against Menlo-Atherton.

  • An energetic crowd of family and friends celebrates as the Panthers score one of their many goals in the third quarter.

  • The Panthers circle up for a final team cheer, moments before the game begins.

  • After flying up from Los Angeles, Burlingame alumni and former teammate Sofia Sodini gave senior Natalie Sullivan Wu an emotional speech in honor of her senior night.

On Tuesday night, girls’ varsity water polo claimed the Peninsula Athletic League Bay Division championship for the second year in a row after emerging victorious in a close match against Menlo-Atherton (M-A) High School.

In the 2021 season, Burlingame won the league championship-determining game against none other than M-A 9-8, and progressed to Central Coast Section (CCS) play. The Panthers entered this game hoping for the same result. But more than a championship title was on the line: it was the Panthers’ senior night, and emotions ran high as Burlingame’s oldest players fought to secure a final playoff run.

 The Panthers were trailing from the start, as M-A won the initial swim off and scored the first two goals in the first quarter. Although Burlingame kept possession of the ball and delivered shots on goal, they were unable to score in the first and second quarter against M-A’s star goalie.

“I thought, we have the better team, you know, more firepower, but they have a really good goalie,” Coach Perry Wu said. “So I didn’t know whether… she [was] gonna block everything and we’d kind of get deflated, or whether we’d sort of rise with that occasion and keep shooting. So we just kept shooting.”

Both teams went scoreless in the second quarter. Heading into halftime, the Panthers were still behind 2-0.

Despite the looming score, Burlingame stayed confident as they prepared for a second half comeback.

“You really have to change your mindset to believe that you can win and that you can do it,” senior and co-captain Alex Gratch said. “It’s really just getting your head in the game, staying focused, and trying to block out everything else and just play the game.”

The team’s motivational strategy was simple, according to senior Gizel Ortiz: pretend that the score was reset to 0-0 at the beginning of every quarter, and that either team had a fair shot at victory.

“The mentality that the score would be 0-0… brought in a lot of energy into not just the game, but as teammates,” Ortiz said. “We really tried to work hard for it.”

Almost immediately after the whistle blew for the second half, Gratch scored Burlingame’s first goal. Soon after, Ortiz scored an individual goal, along with a goal off of an assist from co-captain Natalie Sullivan Wu. At the end of the third quarter, Senior Kelsey Mcdonald scored off of an assist from Gratch. Then came senior Lily Hartley, who scored a wicked behind-the-back goal, bringing the Panthers into the lead.

M-A would only score two goals in the entire second half, in part because of an incredible defensive effort led by junior goalie Stella Wettan. Propelled by an energetic crowd of families and friends screaming “Let’s go Panthers!” Hartley scored the game-winning goal at the end of the fourth quarter, sealing the Panthers’ 6-4 win. 

After the game, the team’s seniors were honored with a senior night celebration, a bittersweet reflection of their growth over the years.

“Everybody has improved on their own skills, whether it was sprinting, shooting, being on set —they all have goals and they all achieved them throughout this game, especially seniors in the senior night,” Ortiz said.

The Panthers will round out their regular season against Notre Dame High School, Belmont on Oct. 20. Then, they shift gears to the CCS tournament, with the seeding meeting set for next weekend. 

“I don’t think I have any specific expectations for CCS,” Gratch said. “It’s a whole different ballgame because there are teams that we’ve never seen before, potentially from all over that have different styles. I just hope we put our best foot forward.”