SPHS Football | Strong Football Test Ahead for Tigers Against 9-0 Monrovia on Thursday

South Pasadena High, which has wrapped up third place in the Rio Hondo League and a CIF playoff opportunity, travels to take on the unbeaten Wildcats in a 7 p.m. contest

PHOTO: Esteban Lopez | SouthPasadenan.com News | South Pasadena High’s football team, which has wrapped up third place in the Rio Hondo League and a CIF playoff opportunity, travels to take on the unbeaten Wildcats in a 7 p.m. contest Thursday night

They’re unbeaten at 9-0 on the season, including a 4-0 record in league play and have eyes on a CIF-Southern Section championship.

“Obviously, they’re a very good team,” said South Pasadena High football coach Jeff Chi, who will take his own playoff bound club into Monrovia Thursday night for an opportunity to knock off the Wildcats in the final Rio Hondo League game of the season.

Aside from a potential major upset, the Tigers, coming off a huge win over rival San Marino last Friday that propelled them into the postseason, look to improve on their 5-4 overall mark, 3-1 against league opponents. With the victory over the Titans, South Pasadena assured itself a third place league finish and will look for some momentum going into the playoffs.

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“Our mindset this week, much like in our last game, is to find a way to win,” said Chi ahead of the 7 p.m. kickoff against Monrovia. “We’re challenging our guys, knowing their ability, to make plays for us. In listening to our players, it sounds like they can. So, I’m going to hold onto that and, if that is a case, go out there and ask our guys to win one play at a time until the game ends.”

Monrovia, in Chi’s mind, is no different than other challenging situations that have faced his team from the start of the season. The Tigers went 2-3 in the preseason before winning three of four in league play. Overall, including non-league, they have won four of their last five and from what Chi is hearing from his players they’re not willing to back down now against highly favored Monrovia.

“Let’s attack, let’s play and see what we can do with this,” said the coach, adding: “This is manageable if we execute and play our game. We understand they have a very powerful offense that scores on teams at will, but we’re not one those other teams. I hope we’re different and are a better coached team than those others and can find an edge somehow.”

Monrovia, top-heavy with size, speed and talent, has scored 50 or more points in five of its contests this season, including a pair going over the 60 mark – decisive 60-15 and 63-13 victories over La Cañada and San Marino, respectively, in league play. Pasadena Poly played them the best in league, losing only 42-13, while Temple City was handed a 55-6 loss last week.

“We’re emphasizing to our running backs to see a lane, run hard, gain yardage and, if that’s the case, continue to make plays, get first downs, and we’re eventually going to make it into the end zone. Same way with the passing game – make the plays and go down and score.”

Deep into the season, Chi said it comes down to having a strong mental approach at this stage “since we’ve done all the weight-lifting, all the conditioning, gone through all our up and downs. It’s a matter of fine tuning, executing and perfecting what we’re good at, take care of business at, and keep improving.”

On Tuesday, the Tigers’ coach said it was “a day-to-day thing,” when asked who will be under center against the Wildcats since starting quarterback Noah Aragon went out in the second quarter with an injury against San Marino and did not return. Jackson Freking stepped in the rest of the way and guided the comeback, throwing a 40-yard touchdown pass to Grant Huntley with 1:07 left in the fourth quarter, giving the Tigers a 24-21 victory over their rivals. The wild finish marked South Pasadena’s first win over the Titans since 2010 – ending a stretch of 10 straight losses.

Chi said both Aragon and Freking have been taking snaps this week. “They’ve been practicing, so we’ll wait and see maybe until game day to see who starts,” said the coach, who will always hold onto the memory of Freking’s scoring pass, followed much of the South Pasadena High student body, and others in the home crowd, pouring onto the field celebrating the triumph with players and coaches.

Huntley had missed most of the season with a broken collarbone but returned in time for Freking to find him for the game-winner. “I was happy for him,” said Chi of Huntley. “He could have called it quits with that injury, but didn’t and worked hard at rehabbing it and made himself available to compete in a crucial game and made a huge play. That just shows you how dedicated he is to the sport and his teammates.”

Standing in the pocket long enough to make the throw, Chi also credits the Tigers’ offensive line for protecting the quarterback on the play. “We’re not the biggest guys up front, but I think they have the biggest hearts,” he said.

At least for now, the San Marino victory will take a back seat to what’s ahead as the Tigers prepare for their most difficult team on the schedule up to this point. All week, Chi and his coaching staff have reminded Tiger players “of what they’re capable of doing, of their assignments and winning each play as much as possible and collectively, we’ll try to do better than they do,” he said. “We just have to give our guys the hope, opportunity and a chance to beat them somehow.”