It’s not a sight Peninsula Athletic League fans — or for that matter, the Burlingame High School faithful — are used to seeing.
In a little more than a decade of football, Burlingame has only been “down” to the Ocean three times, often opting to play against stiffer competition in the Bay even when the talent level was higher than what the Panthers could offer on the field.
But the bumps, bruises and injuries added up last year for Burlingame and despite sneaking into the Central Coast Section playoffs on a heroic end-of-the-season run, coach John Philipopoulos looked into his crystal ball and chose to have his young squad toughen up in the Ocean division this season.
“I just felt like it was the appropriate time for us to move down,” Philipopoulos said. “That’s where we belong. I think for the most part, this is an Ocean Division-type school. I think our kids have done an outstanding job playing up, but for this year’s group, we’re right where we belong.”
As appropriate as the Ocean may be for Burlingame, the move does come with a sense of urgency for a Burlingame program that hasn’t won a division title since the 2002 season. Talented players at the skill positions, coupled with a demotion of sorts to the Ocean, makes the Panthers a division favorite. Philipopoulos knows it. His players know it. The city they represent know it.
“There is definitely a sense of urgency,” Philipopoulos said. “We played a lot of great games, we’ve always been in the upper division, lost a lot of tough games, won a lot of close games as well, but in my mind, we have a great opportunity this season and we need to go out and take advantage of it. That being said, we are very much a work in progress.”
Burlingame’s biggest question mark is in the trenches. Gone are the Benji Palus of the world, and what’s left are lineman who Philipopoulos and his staff are treating like puzzle pieces.
“We’ve moving some guys around and hopefully, real soon here, we’ll get that figured out. I think we’re getting close, but we’re not quite there yet,” Philipopoulos said. “That’s definitely a point of emphasis for us.”
It’s not like the Burlingame skill players need a whole lot of daylight running backs like Manase Palu, Keone Keahi and Robby Baumgarten have already shown PAL fans what they can do with the ball in their hands. The key then, is blocking up front for those guys. And for Burlingame’s new quarterback.
Avery Gindraux takes over the reins after starting gigs on the freshman and junior varsity squads. He’s been in all summer putting in work, Philipopoulos said.
“Avery is all in,” Philipopoulos said. “He’s fully rested. He’s a very smart kid. He’s very much engaged. He wants to learn. He’s very coachable. Good speed, decent height, good arm, outstanding feet in the pocket. He’s something we’re really excited about.”
Taking some pressure off the young QB are the aforementioned trio of Burlingame superstars — Palu, Keahi and Baumgarten. Philipopoulos said there are two or three other guys he’s perfectly comfortable with handing the rock to.
“Skill positions, I think we go toe to toe with any school in the PAL,” Philipopoulos said. “I feel strongly about that. I’ve seen a lot of maturation in those guys — in their approach, in their work ethic, in their ability and desire to be leaders and not just go with the flow. They’re trying to set a tone and tempo in practice. We’re really happy with that.”
Not surprisingly, the same applies to Burlingame’s defense, where the Panthers return their entire secondary (including Liam Martinez, a senior DB primed for a good season), and both their outside linebackers. The slew of injuries suffered by Burlingame last year allowed a lot of juniors to earn priceless playing time — Philipopoulos is hoping that pay dividends this year.
On special teams, Seamus Gill takes over the kicking duties.
“Based on what happened to us last year, we’re hoping this is an injury-free year for us,” Philipopoulos said. “It’s so important to get off to a good start for the morale of the team, for the direction of the program and for our standing in CCS.”
Coach: John Philipopoulos (12th year)
2012-13 record: 5-6 overall, 2-3 PAL Bay
Key Players: Avery Gindraux (JR., QB); Robby Baumgarten (SR., RB/DB); Manase Palu (SR., RB/DB); Seamus Gill (SR., K/RB/DB); Keone Keahi (SR., RB /DB); Liam Martinez (SR., WR/DB).
2013-14 Schedule (home games in CAPS): 9/6 Mountain View, 3:30 p.m.; 9/20 Gunderson, 7 p.m.; 9/27 South San Francisco, 7 p.m.; 10/4 JEFFERSON, 7 p.m.; 10/11 KING’S ACADEMY, 7 p.m.; 10/18 Aragon, 7 p.m.; 10/25 Half Moon Bay, 7 p.m.; 11/1 CAPUCHINO, 7 p.m.; 11/8 WOODSIDE, 7 p.m.; 11/16 San Mateo, 11 a.m.