In a word, South Pasadena High football coach Jeff Chi says “gutsy” best describes his team as the Tigers prepare to hit the road August 23 to face Mountain View of El Monte in the season opener for both teams.
Whether or not his team can improve on its disappointing 3-7 overall record of a year ago, win or lose Chi knows for certain his club has given him everything he’s asked and more over the past eight months as it looks ahead to the 7 p.m. kickoff.
“The kids have really worked hard,” said Chi, now in his third year overseeing the SPHS varsity, and roughly 30 coaching the sport in various assistant roles. “They’re flying around the field. It’s great to see. They want to win.”
They’re also an extremely physically fit bunch, insists the coach. Failing to be more successful last season helped motivate them to get there.
A sense of urgency kicked in following last season’s disappointment as returning players began hitting the weight room in January, later increasing their tempo on the field during spring and summer drills, and over the past three weeks with the first game on the team’s radar, Chi now says the heavy workload is showing on the field.
He doesn’t know if the extra effort is going to pay off in victories, but the Tigers won’t make a lack of conditioning an excuse this season.
“Our off-season program has been pretty tough,” said Chi. “It was a little too tough for some kids and they ended up dropping out. But it made the rest of our guys who stuck it out more mentally and physically tough. Their conditioning has been just outstanding.”
South Pasadena was tested on both sides of the ball Friday night as the Tigers traveled to Lincoln High in Los Angeles for a scrimmage. Following the effort, the focus now turns to Mountain View, a team they beat convincing 35-14 last season.
“The idea of the scrimmage was to give the new guys a sense of what it’s like to play at the varsity level,” explained Chi. “We wanted to give some of the returning guys a chance to work on their timing, and also give an opportunity for the second string players a chance to step up and maybe earn a starting job.”
Samuel Luna-Long has been handed the keys to run to Tigers’ offense this season. The senior quarterback will also be a receiver in certain situations and play in South Pasadena’s defensive backfield.
Luna-Long will be surrounded by a strong supporting cast as the Tigers return about a dozen key players, all seniors, from last year’s squad. Along with Luna-Long, some of the returnees Chi is counting on in a big way include Ivan Estrada (RB, DB), Ethan Hong, (RB, LB), Quentin Pithey (MLB, FB), Raymond Gomez (RB, FB), Jared Lachica (OL, LB), Daniel Garcia Villavicencio (OL,DE), Andre Johnson (OL,DL), Garrett Washburn (OL, DL), Julian Cabrera (OL, DL) and Cole Stadler (OL, DL).
“We have a lot of guys who can make plays,” said Chi. “We’re excited to see what they do on the field. We hopefully will get some mismatches, and get the ball moving.”
The coach is making the most of a small roster that lists roughly 28 players. “The numbers are low, but we have really good quality in terms of our talent,” Chi said. “I’m really looking forward to watching them shine on Friday nights. There’s a lot of talent on offense and some really tough kids on the defensive side.”
At first glance, don’t underestimate the ability of those on the field, warns Chi, noting: “On the surface people are going to say, ‘Oh, there’s not much there,’ but once they start playing football and see how intense and tough they are, I think teams are going to feel it.”
The coach used the word “tough” repeatedly as he talked favorably about a group of teens going the extra mile to potentially win its first Rio Hondo League title in 40 years. It’s a team goal, like it is every year, just like beating rival San Marino, a team that has handed a loss to the Tigers every year since 2011 or eight straight Titan wins. The odds might be better now that Mike Hobbie has retired, leaving the San Marino job to Justin Mesa.
“We’ve got our team and individual goals,” said Chi. “We want our players to have some sense of why they are out here, and goals are important.”
Since January, the Tigers have pointed to the start of the 2019 season with a renewed vigor. “They’ve been lifting hard, running hard and practicing hard – just focusing on football,” Chi explained. “None of us know the outcome from all this hard work, but I know they’ve worked tremendously hard in the weight room, on the field, sometimes in severe heat, and have given a significant amount of time and effort to help this program.”
Right there with them have been dedicated coaches Jason Barnes (offensive coordinator), Brandon Wilson (defensive coordinator), John Morant (WR/DB) and Paul Hugasian (QB/LB).
Chi, putting in long hours almost daily with his players, sounds like a guy who wouldn’t want to be anyplace else, knowing this year’s team is a special group. “They’ve sacrificed so much to be here,” he said. “Regardless of the outcome of the season, the fact that they have worked through the heat, stuck it out throughout everything, the time and effort – you’ve got to be proud.”
SOUTH PASADENA 2019 FOOTBALL SCHEDULE
- 8/23 – South Pasadena High at Mountain View (El Monte), 7 p.m.
- 8/30 – Viewpoint (Calabasas) at South Pasadena High
- 9/6 – South Pasadena High at Eastside (Lancaster) 7 p.m.
- 9/20 – South Pasadena High at Alhambra, 7 p.m.
- 9/27 – Bassett (La Puente) at South Pasadena High, 7 p.m.
- 10/4 – South Pasadena High at Polytechnic, 7 p.m.
- 10/11 – San Marino at South Pasadena, 7 p.m.
- 10/18 – South Pasadena at Monrovia, 7 p.m.
- 10/25 – South Pasadena at Temple City, 7 p.m.
- 11/1 – La Cañada at South Pasadena, 7 p.m.