It was all set up, just the way Chris Schmoke envisioned it.
South Pasadena High had just scored, going 80 yards on 11 plays as quarterback Samuel Luna-Long, who had a big night, found Terrence Sweetman on a 21-yard scoring pass, giving the Tigers a 27-20 lead with 4:17 left on the fourth quarter clock.
A rare extra point miss by the Tigers gave visiting Pasadena Poly all the hope it needed of taking the ensuring kick off, working the ball down field, scoring in the final minutes and, as Schmoke, the Panters’ coach hoped would happen, make a two-point conversion and walk away with a narrow 28-27 victory.
The plan quickly blew up after the Panthers started the drive from their own 36. On first down, backup quarterback Colin Mathews, in for a winded Trent Steele who also plays defense and was “gassed,” explained the coach, threw a backward pass to Thibeaux Hirsh, who left it alone thinking it was incomplete, only to watch South Pasadena players scoop it up realizing it was a live ball.
Suddenly the Tigers were on the attack again from the Pasadena Poly 33, wasting little time as Ethan Hong picked up 10 yards for a first down. Two plays later Luna-Long zipped a 24 yard touchdown pass to Ivan Estrada and the Tigers were comfortably in front by two touchdowns, 34-20, with 2:11 left in the contest, and on the way to putting another game in the win column.
“That was huge turnover,” said South Pasadena coach Jeff Chi, who has got his team off to a 5-1 start as the Tigers prepare to host rival San Marino next Friday in the Rio Hondo League opener for both clubs. “I feel sorry for the young man who dropped the ball. I think he thought the ball was dead. We told our guys to ‘go after it, go after it.’ Our guys just reacted and jumped on the ball.”
Mathews rolled out and had the option of running or passing it, deciding to “throw the ball back to the receiver latterly,” explained Chi, “and the receiver thought it was a forward lateral pass and kind of stood there and our guys jumped on it and recovered. It was just a huge turn around.”
Schmoke agreed “it was big,” and he wishes he could have it back, adding, “I was a big one from a momentum standpoint, being within seven and feeling like we may have missed one. Back to the drawing-board. They’re kids.”
Panther coaches knew what they were going to do had the game been locked 27-27 late in the contest.
“We were ready to go for two,” said Schmoke, matter-of-factly, after watching Pasadena Poly fall to 4-2 with the loss. “But we had to get down there first, and there’s certainly no guarantee in that. Give them (South Pasadena) credit for coming in playing hard in a tough back-and forth game. It can be tough being up two touchdowns then being down at the half. I was impressed with their preparation and how hard they played.”
South Pasadena climbed out to an early 14-0 lead in the first quarter as Luna-Long, who finished the night connecting on 9 of 13 passes for 260 yards and a whopping 5 touchdowns, came out throwing, hitting Sweetman on a 70-yard scoring pass and Grant Huntley on another from 50 yards out.
That all happened in the first eight minutes before the Panthers scored their first points of the night, running back Jackson Treister powering his way up the middle hardly touched from the five, making it a 14-7 contest with just over four minutes to go in the wild first quarter.
Pasadena Poly tied it at 14 with 5:31 left in the second period as Treister, the Panthers’ go-to guy when yards were needed, rounded the right side and dove over the pylon, just getting into the end zone as the official raised both arms indicating touchdown. Treister let out a loud roar as he ran off, celebrating with teammates who relished the comeback.
Putting together another solid drive near the end of the half, the Panthers starting deep in their own territory before driving it to South Pasadena’s 4, resulting in a 25-yard field goal, giving the Panthers a 17-14 lead at intermission.
South Pasadena regained the lead with 5:08 to go in the third quarter when Luna-Long connected with Huntley on a perfectly thrown pass down the left side behind two defenders. The Panthers, scoring their only point of the second half, booted a 26-yard field goal with 11:56 left in the fourth period, making it 21-20. The Tigers then led by seven points when Sweetman pulled in Luna-Long’s 21-yarder at the 4-minute mark and iced it when Estrada got into the scoring, securing a 24-yarder to seal the win.
Schmoke said his players were obviously disappointed in not coming away with a win and tossed accolades in the direction of his opponent. “We were hoping to play a better game,” he said. “We were off for a week and the kids were all gone on trips and it showed. The effort was there. We just didn’t execute the way we needed to execute. Give them credit for having a good game plan coming in and kind of exploiting some of the stuff we do. Our kids gave great effort. We just have to get better. We’ll look at the film and learn.”
South Pasadena’s coach liked how his club took the early lead but had to battle back after falling behind at half time. His team show plenty of grit limiting the Panthers to a half field goal in the second half.
Huntley finished the night with two catches for 80 yards, Sweetman had three more, two TDs and 118 yards while Estrada made another two for 35 yards to go along with his deciding score. On the ground, Hong carried for 88 yards on 11 carries, sparking the Tigers’ running game.
“It was a true test of our kid’s character to see what they were made of in coming out on top,” said Chi, especially impressed with the play of the Panther’s Mathews when he was in at wide receiver, Steele at quarterback and the hard-charging Treister, difficult to bring down. “That’s a pretty good team over there and it was a good challenge for us.”
Chi simply wants to “keep this thing rolling,” he said following the Tigers’ victory. “Our guys worked so hard during the off season, they deserve it. Hopefully, they will keep it up and go after the league (title). This win means we can beat good quality teams out there.”