SAN MATEO — Rivalry games are always accompanied by a warning to throw out both teams’ records.
That may be true, but don’t throw out strength of schedule.
The San Mateo Bearcats entered the 94th Little Big Game undefeated but had yet to play a team anywhere near Burlingame’s caliber, and the gap in competition was evident from the start as the Panthers raced out to a 27-0 lead before the end of the first quarter and went on to win 37-7, extending their winning streak over their longtime rivals to 12.
“They’re an ‘A’ league team, and we haven’t played ‘A’ league teams,” San Mateo head coach Jeff Scheller said. “The speed is different and the physicality is different.”
The speed was evident from the opening kickoff, which Burlingame’s Will Uhrich took and went untouched for a 75-yard touchdown. Normally positioned around the goal line, the Panthers had studied San Mateo’s special teams and knew the Bearcats wouldn’t be able to kick it deep.
“They couldn’t really kick it too far, so we planned well for that,” Uhrich said. “Our blocking was there and I just took it.”
After forcing a three-and-out, Burlingame (8-2) got to work against a Bearcats defense that entered the day having allowed just six touchdowns all year and drove with similar ease, with Lukas Habelt scoring three times by the end of the opening quarter.
“Just find the end zone, that’s what I do,” Habelt said.
The Panthers had relied on explosive big plays to score early in the season before finding their traditional form in the running game, and the tried-and-true wing-T attack was in vintage form. A pair of Bearcat penalties took a 13-yard Ryan Kall scramble to the red zone, and Habelt scored on a 5-yard run three plays later. San Mateo (8-1) punted again after one first down, and Uhrich’s diving catch for a 33-yard reception on fourth down set Habelt up for an 11-yard score. A holding flag forced a third San Mateo punt, and Habelt raced 69 yards for his third touchdown to give his team a 27-0 lead with 1:39 still remaining in the opening quarter.
In all, Habelt ran just four times but managed to tally 88 yards.
“We practiced with good energy and it really paid off,” Burlingame head coach John Philipopoulos said. “We’ve had a couple tough weeks, and we really pushed hard on the kids and made sure we practiced well.”
The two prior losses, a 1-point overtime defeat to Half Moon Bay and a blowout at the hands of Menlo-Atherton, left the Panthers both frustrated and shorthanded after seven starters left injured. Those frustrations were quickly forgotten with the dominant first quarter.
Kall added a 35-yard field goal early in the second quarter and Nick Cilia, who ran six times for 63 yards, scored on a 3-yard run with 3:08 left in the first half. Burlingame was able to avoid further injuries by playing second-stringers through most of the second half, which was played with a running clock. San Mateo broke the shutout four minutes into the final quarter on Viliami Zepeda’s 3-yard run.
Tevita Kioa had nine carries for 46 yards for the host Bearcats, while quarterback Giancarlo Selvitella completed 4 of 8 passes for 60 yards. Noah Rodriguez had two catches for 41 yards for a San Mateo team that can look at the Panthers to see the benefits of playing tough competition.
“Just like they had to flush that M-A loss down the toilet, we have to flush this one down the toilet and move on,” Scheller said. “We have to make sure there’s no emotional hangover after that.”
The Panthers have won 23 of their last 25 meetings with San Mateo and now own a 58-32-4 overall record against the Bearcats. Philipopoulos, whose mastery of the Bearcats has become so commonplace that he wasn’t given a Gatorade shower at the end of the game, now owns an 18-2 record in San Mateo County’s oldest rivalry.
The Bearcats were supposed to have faced one other team of Burlingame’s caliber, having scheduled Half Moon Bay for Sept. 3, but that game was canceled after positive COVID-19 tests.
“That would have helped,” Scheller said.
Nonetheless, facing the Panthers should benefit the Peninsula Athletic League Lake Division champion Bearcats, who will be in the CCS Division V postseason field. No. 4-seed San Mateo will open the playoffs hosting No. 5 North Salinas this Saturday at 7 p.m.
Burlingame claimed the low seed in the CCS Division II tournament. The No. 8 Panthers will travel to No. 1 San Benito this Friday at 7 p.m.