A long-awaited celebration took place Friday night as South Pasadena High’s football team held off its neighboring rival, finally prevailing with a key win over San Marino.
The 24-21 Rio Hondo League victory at home was the first for the Tigers since 2010 – a stretch of 10 games – and it was finally time to rejoice for South Pasadena coach Jeff Chi, his fellow coaches and players, most of whom were in elementary school the last time orange and black came out on top.
It wasn’t easy for the Tigers to put the game away, as they needed nearly every second of the clock to win as backup quarterback Jackson Freking found Grant Huntley, making a return to the lineup after suffering a broken collarbone early in the season, to haul in the winning touchdown with 1:07 left in the 4th quarter.
Huntley dialed in with the South Pasadena coaches before the play was called, telling them it would work, and sure enough it did, Freking zipping a perfectly thrown pass down the middle to the open receiver as the home crowd rose to its feet letting out a thunderous roar after the official signaled touchdown.
“It’s called Ohio,” explained Huntley following the contest. “They didn’t guard me, that’s the thing. I got open and they weren’t there. I saw it, and thought it would win us the game and it did. I told the coach, he put trust in me and I appreciate that.”
After throwing the pass, Freking’s immediate thought was “just being so happy,” he said, obviously pleased by the outcome. “I ran down the field and was flailing my hands. It was a great.”
Chi remembers Huntley suggesting the play, the receiver saying he thought he could find an opening down field if given the chance to pull it off. ‘Hey coach, let’s run it,” said Huntley.
“And you know, I said, ‘yeah, let’s go with this,’” said Chi, agreeing with the call. “Grant is a very smart receiver. He sees things on the field and knows what he has.”
What he has, acknowledges the head coach, is the ability to make plays and come down with big catches. He had four on the night for 81 yards, including the touchdown that snapped the Titans’ winning streak.
The Tiger coaches trusted him, Huntley ran the route, got open “and Jackson did a great job of putting the ball on the line,” noted Chi. “It was a huge, huge play for us.”
San Marino with a minute remaining in the game made the most of it, but a final opportunity to score fell short as time ran out. After the clock ticked down, jubilant South Pasadena High students danced their way to midfield to enjoy the moment with players and coaches, knowing the years of losing to San Marino had ended. Soon after, as part of the tradition between the two campuses, the winning team hoisted a huge game plaque and the Crowley Cup, two pieces of hardware going to the victor.
“I’m happy for the boys, the program, school and community,” said Chi, saying it did indeed feel like the monkey came off the back of all those involved. “I’m just glad we were able to come out with a win for all those who have been supporting us.”
The Tigers secured at least a third place spot in the CIF-Southern playoffs as they improved to 5-4 overall and, more importantly, 3-1 against Rio Hondo League opponents. They trail first place Monrovia and runner-up Pasadena Poly in the standings as the top three league finishers head to the postseason.
“We just have come out healthy, regroup and keep the same intensity we had tonight and carry that with us,” said Chi, looking forward to his club to keep playing past the regular season. “We just have to go after it. We have a great chance of advancing if everybody comes out and plays like they’re supposed to.”
The loss left San Marino at 4-5 on the season, 1-3 in league play and out of all opportunities to extend their season beyond its final game next Friday, October 29, at home against La Cañada.
The Tigers have one more league encounter against powerful Monrovia next Thursday, October 28, and will be facing a team that walloped San Marino 63-13 earlier this month.
What’s it going to take to upset a Wildcat squad that has dominated most opponents this season and, not surprisingly, has a perfect 9-0 mark, 4-0 in league?
“They have a huge line, a very powerful running back, receivers that are tall and fast, and a quarterback who can throw the ball well,” said Chi. “It’s going to be a challenge for us, but I also think it’s a test for our guys to see how tough we are.”
They were plenty tough against a San Marino team that came close to winning their 11th straight over the Tigers. South Pasadena held a 17-7 advantage at the half, taking only five plays to score on its opening drive as quarterback Noah Aragon raced around the right side from 40-yards out for the Tigers first TD. San Marino pulled even on a 13-yard catch by Andrew Hornberger with 26 seconds left in the first quarter.
Jack Riffle put the Tigers ahead 14-7 on a 1-yard run with 8:23 left in the second quarter on a play in which Aragon went to the sidelines with an injury and didn’t return. With 53 seconds to go before the half South Pasadena gave itself a 10-point lead on a 27-yard field goal.
The Titans closed the gap to 17-14 with 7:43 remaining in the third quarter as Hornberger scored again, this time on a 44-yard pass, setting up the fourth quarter dramatics. Hornberger crossed the goal line for a third time on a 13-yard pass, pushing San Marino out front 21-17 with three minutes to go in the game before the Tigers offense clicked, starting from their own 36, and driving it down field, racking up the winning points on a play many South Pasadena players will never forget.
“Yep, it’s called Ohio,” said a beaming Chi. “I’m glad we called it.”
It was sweet revenge for the Tigers, who were beaten by the Titans 22-20 last spring on a 42-yard field goal with no time left on the clock following a controversial interference penalty on the defensive side. The game was part of a season delayed until last spring on account of COVID.
“There was a lot on the line this time, the kids played well and I’m glad we came out on top,” said Chi.
Prior to Friday’s kickoff a group of South Pasadena High’s finest athletes were recognized while being inducted into the school’s athletic Hall of Fame. Twenty-four former student-athletes and a pair of coaches received the prestigious honor.
A halftime ceremony, including a fireworks show in the south end of the stadium, was the backdrop for naming Aiden-Bar Cohen the 2021 homecoming “Royal Tiger.” He was joined on the field by others in contention, including: Elena Wilds, Colin Wong, Samantha Lopez, Isabella Alfonso and William Kan. The night also recognized graduating seniors playing their final home game in a South Pasadena uniform.
“With all that was going on, there could have been distractions,” said Chi. “We kept emphasizing that this game was so important with a plaque involved. We told them that everything that was happening around campus before the game was for them. I think our guys did a great job of focusing on the game. Now we just have to come out and play well against Monrovia.”
At least for now, with the second of two football games between South Pasadena and San Marino played this year in the books, Chi can finally say his club is on a one game-winning streak over his team’s nemesis three miles to the east. Now that feels good, admits the Tigers’ coach.
“It was a great high school football game,” he said. “It could have gone either way. I’m just glad we came out on top.”
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