The rise of Burlingame girls’ water polo is all but complete.

In 2019, the Panthers captured the Ocean Division crown, which necessitated a move to the Bay Division.

The Panthers held their own in abbreviated Bay play during the 2021 spring season and with the entirety of that team returning for the fall, expectations were high.

Burlingame (10-1 PAL Bay) has now nearly climbed to the top of the Bay Division mountain. Going into Wednesday’s showdown with Menlo-Atherton, the Panthers and Bears were tied for the division lead.

Following the Panthers’ 9-8 win, they now sit alone in first place with just one match to play.

“The whole season came down to this one game,” Burlingame head coach Dennis Clement said. “We came out firing.”

M-A fell a game behind Burlingame earlier this season after dropping a decision to Woodside Sept. 20. But the Bears came back to hand the Panthers their only Bay Division loss a week later, setting up Wednesday’s showdown.

Wednesday’s game was everything a match to decide a championship should be: back-and-forth action in a game that wasn’t decided until the final minute — in both regulation and overtime.

“The JV team was cheering. The boys varsity team was cheering. The energy in the pool was amazing,” said Burlingame utility player and co-team captain Lily Hartley.

It was Hartley’s goal with 22 seconds remaining in regulation that tied the score at 7-all and it was her strike on the power play with just over a minute left in the first overtime that gave the Panthers a lead, 8-7, one they would not relinquish.

While it is Natalie Sullivan Wu who garners most of the attention for Burlingame for her goal-scoring prowess, it was a total team effort offensively that gave Burlingame the key win. Sullivan Wu and Hartley each had three goals and combined for four assists. Gizel Ortiz, Alex Gratch and Maryanne Maxwell all added goals, as well.

“[Sullivan Wu] is not the only goal scorer (on our team),” Clement said.

Added Hartley: “We’re all capable of scoring outside shots. We’re all capable of scoring in the set, of scoring off the drive. It was great. I was so happy everyone had the confidence to shoot.”

Menlo-Atherton (8-2) was led by Ella Nelson, who finished with a match-high five goals. Whitney Allen scored a pair, including the go-ahead goal in the fourth period.

The game featured six ties and six lead changes. The teams were tied at 5-all after three quarters of play before Sullivan Wu hammered home a backhand shot to put Burlingame up 6-5 early in the fourth.

M-A rallied back. The Bears tied the score coming out of a timeout with 2:38 remaining in regulation, with Viviana Luna netting her shot off a lob from the right wing.

M-A water polo

M-A’s Whitney Allen scores the go-ahead goal in the fourth quarter. But Burlingame tied the score with 22 seconds left and won in OT.

A little over a minute later, the Bears regained the lead. Allen swam onto a long outlet pass from M-A goaltender Katharine Rochte and beat the Burlingame goalie for a 7-6 Bears’ advantage.

Burlingame was in trouble on its final possession of the fourth quarter, but with only a couple ticks left on the shot clock, M-A was whistled for exclusion, giving the Panthers a man-advantage and, more importantly, a new shot clock. Starting with 25 seconds left, Sullivan Wu found Hartley on the left point and she unleashed a shot that found the back of the net with 22 seconds remaining to tie the match at 7-7.

“Natalie is one of my closest friends,” Hartley said. “We work together a lot at practice.”

Hartley struck again midway through the first, three-minute overtime period to give Burlingame an 8-7 advantage. With the Panthers back on the power play, Hartley, again, launched a shot from the left point, picking out the far right corner of the goal.

M-A goaltender Rochte managed to get a hand on the shot, deflecting it off the post. But the ball ricocheted off the post, heading left and into the goal.

With 11 seconds left in the opening overtime period, the Panthers extended their lead, with Maxwell converting a Sullivan Wu pass into a 9-7 advantage.

M-A cut the lead back to one, 9-8, when Allen scored off the left wing off a Nelson pass with just under two minutes left in the second overtime period.

M-A had one last chance to send the game to a golden-goal finish but, on a restart at midpool, Sullivan Wu jumped the M-A player, coming up with the steal and all but icing the game for the Panthers.

“Today, we definitely turned it up a notch,” Clement said.

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