One minute, the San Mateo High football team's championship dreams and playoff aspirations were on life support. The next, the Bearcats and their fans raced to midfield in a raucous celebration after a stunning 25-20 victory over visiting Burlingame in the 82nd Little Big Game.
A nightmare start to the fourth quarter nearly cost San Mateo a game it led 19-7 entering the final period. But the Bearcats regrouped just in time, as Johnnie Niupalau's 44-yard touchdown catch with 42 seconds left propelled San Mateo to the Peninsula Athletic League Ocean Division title and the division's lone automatic Central Coast Section playoff bid.
"We've been waiting for this day," said Niupalau, whose program hadn't won a league title or made the playoffs since 2003. "It's unbelievable."
In the fourth quarter, Burlingame (7-3, 3-2 Ocean) recorded two takeaways and stuffed the Bearcats' fake punt near midfield. Ilan Lesov (166 yards rushing on 34 carries, three TDs) scored twice in a 3-minute span.
Burlingame looked poised to add to a 20-19 lead until San Mateo (7-3, 4-1) stopped its rival with a goal-line stand to take possession at the Bearcats 6 with 1:36 remaining.
San Mateo's Mitch Labbie (11-for-15 passing, 176 yards, two TDs) completed three straight passes before George Naufahu (15 carries for 85 yards, one TD) slashed for a 24-yard gain up the middle.
Then Labbie lofted a wobbly pass into the end zone, but Niupalau (142 yards on eight catches, two TDs) leaped over a defender for the go-ahead score.
Burlingame had one more shot, but Niupalau intercepted a halfback pass to snap the Panthers' five-game win streak in the Peninsula's oldest rivalry. Burlingame owns a 46-32-4 series lead in the Little Big Game.
"They made the last play," said Burlingame coach John Philipopoulos, who is confident his team has enough power points to garner an at-large CCS bid. "We're obviously upset. The league championship? Down the drain."
San Mateo coach Jeff Scheller said a loss would have left his progam "on the very edge of the (CCS) bubble." The Bearcats gained 368 yards and held Burlingame to 226.