SUNNYVALE — Maybe this wasn’t the Burlingame Panthers team that was supposed to win a Central Coast Section championship.
Entering the CCS Division III girls’ soccer tournament as an at-large bid, the No. 6-seed Panthers (12-4-6 overall) finished in fourth place in the mighty Peninsula Athletic League Bay Division. And through three CCS playoff wins, Burlingame settled just one in regulation — in the quarterfinals 1-0 over Pioneer — before winning its last two games in penalty kicks.
Then again, maybe this was precisely the Burlingame team built to win the program’s first CCS title since the Panthers won back-to-back championships in 2008 and ’09. Dominant defense and exceptional goalkeeping have been Burlingame’s strategy all year. And in Saturday’s 0-0 (4-2 in PKs) victory over No. 8 Menlo School at Fremont High School, newly crowned Burlingame executed its game plan to perfection.
“This is a team that just barely qualified for CCS,” Panthers head coach Phil De Rosa said. “They really grew as a team as the year went on. And it’s a testament to the quality of the girls I have that they never gave up. Even when things were down … and it didn’t look like we were going to make CCS, it didn’t look like we were going to do well in league and, all of a sudden, we kept playing better and better. And we got to the point where we’ve got a championship. It’s like I told them, without question, this is a team of destiny.”
Seniors Sophia Young and Courtney Koch delivered that destiny. Young, the reigning PAL Bay Division Goalkeeper of the Year, gave the Panthers the advantage in PKs with two saves, including in the top of the fourth round when she stayed on Menlo sophomore Ella El-Fishawy’s attempt to the right side, only to have the shot clang off the post.
“I was very excited,” Young said. “I was like: ‘We’re going to make the next [PK] and, that’s it, we’re champs.’”
Sure enough, with Burlingame already leading 3-2 in the PK shootout, there was no fifth round necessary. Koch delivered the game-winner in the bottom of the fourth round before turning around, seeing senior Ava Klapper and the rest of her teammates running toward her, to celebrate the crowning moment.
It was the second game-winning penalty kick Koch provided in as many games. She also scored the clincher in last Wednesday’s 1-1 (3-1 in PKs) victory over Sacred Heart Cathedral in the semifinals.
“I get extremely nervous,” Koch said. “When I walk up to the ball, I know exactly where I’m going to go. And right when it went to the back of the net, I was just so excited. I just knew we had a good season and we were well deserved to win these games.”
When the day started, a defensive battle didn’t seem to be in the cards. Menlo opened the day with a fantastic chance in the third minute, created by the clever footwork of forward Avery Patel. The crafty junior danced into the middle through two defenders and tapped a quick pass in tempo to Sidney Peña charging off the right side. Peña had a 1-on-1 cutting straight to the cage from 10 yards out but her attempt boomed wide right to leave Young, the keeper, unchallenged.
“I got the ball, I was able to turn, and the girl, I kind of shifted her a little bit and she stepped away from me, and she just left the entire middle open,” Patel said. “I just had a ton of space and so I just dribbled towards the box. My midfielder made a great run and so I just laid it off to her. And she unfortunately didn’t get the goal, but it was a great run by her.”
The Lady Knights (11-4-7) managed no shots on goal in the half as Burlingame tactically flipped the field. Panthers central midfielder Kerry Wakasa steadied a strong passing game through the middle third. And De Rosa shored up his defense by driving a wedge through the middle of the field, marking Patel with a stopper.
“So, we had to adapt a little bit,” Patel said. “And I think we got better in the second half at that.”
It took Menlo until overtime to counter the vaunted Burlingame defense. And the Knights had their chances — two great ones, to be precise — both coming in the second 10-minute overtime period.
Menlo’s best look in over 90 minutes came off a corner, when sophomore Claire Pickering steadied the ball in a cluster of players and took aim from just inside the 18-yard line, bombing one just over the crossbar. Two minutes later, the Knights drove downfield for a sharp-angled attempt that made Young leave her feet. Young slapped the ball away, but the rebound found El-Fishawy off the left post. The sophomore’s attempt, however, was wide of the mark, essentially sending the game to penalty kicks.
“It’s just unfortunate both players happened to hit it over,” Patel said. “But there was so much going on, so I understand that.”
Burlingame has now won three matches in penalty kicks this year. The first came at the same field at Fremont High School early in the non-league season during the Firebird Classic.
De Rosa said he’s made penalty kicks a focal point in Burlingame practices, and told his players throughout the year their CCS destiny could rely on PKs. And the Panthers’ defense-first approach proved to win the day in the program’s third all-time CCS championship.
“I’ve always been known as a defensive-minded coach,” De Rosa said. “It keeps you in the game and then you capitalize on the opportunities you get. I have an absolutely phenomenal goalkeeper. She’s just special. … Her athleticism but, more important, she’s absolutely smart and brilliant.”
Burlingame now advances to the CIF Northern California Division III tournament. As the No. 8 seed in the eight-team bracket, the Panthers travel to No. 1 Mountain View for Tuesday’s opener at 3 p.m.