It took awhile, COVID and other concerns getting in the way, but South Pasadena’s High’s football team was finally able to celebrate a memorable season with a season-ending banquet last Sunday at Mamma’s Brick Oven Pizza & Pasta in the city.
Eight major annual awards along with a new one were presented to top talent on the squad after Tigers’ coach Jeff Chi talked about a campaign that put South Pasadena at the doorstep of playing for a CIF-Southern Section title last fall.
South Pasadena was slow out of the gate, going 2-3 in the preseason before turning it around with a 3-2 mark for a third place finish against Rio Hondo League opponents. The Tigers then took their 5-5 record into the CIF Division 13 playoffs, winning their first two games over Magnolia and Western Christian before falling in the closing seconds to Montclair 28-21 in the semi-finals.
Before getting there, the Tigers had a key victory down the stretch of the regular season as Grant Huntley hauled in a 40-yard scoring pass with just over a minute left in the game, ending a 10-game losing streak to rival San Marino.
The 24-21 victory propelled the Tigers into the post-season. 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 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.
South Pasadena also had another big league win, coming back in the final minute to beat La Cañada in what Chi called “a miracle victory.” The Tigers blocked a Spartans field goal, the ball recovered by running back Jack Riffle, who ran it back about 60-yards. That was enough for South Pasadena to set up for a 32-yard winning field goal with little time on the clock.
“I was proud of the team for playing through a rough preseason, and focusing on getting better each week for the league and the playoffs,” said Tigers’ coach Jeff Chi following the banquet. “Due to their persistency, they had a strong finish to the season, one that they will remember for a long time. I enjoyed being part of their memorable and exciting season. To see our kids fight back and come out with wins over La Cañada and San Marino showed that their heads were in the right place. Our goal was to get better each week and we did. All the losses in the preseason didn’t matter because as a team we had bigger goals. Their perseverance, dedication and work ethic really paid off. I was really happy for the seniors on how they went out.”
Riffle was named the team’s Most Valuable Player. The Offensive Player of the Year Award was shared by Grant Huntley and Noah Aragon while the Defensive Player of the Year honors went to Alex Gonzalez.
Six other awards were featured at Sunday’s event, including:
Lineman of the Year: Ivan Becerra
Coaches Award: Jaden Castellon
Captains Award: Andrew Buenrostro
Eye of the Tiger Award: Jason Hong
Special Team Award: Aidan Kinney
Most Improved Award: Quinn Stirling
In addition, the Rio Hondo League All-League players from South Pasadena High were announced: Ivan Becerra (Offensive Lineman); Andrew Buenrostro (offensive lineman); Grant Huntley (wide receiver); Jack Riffle (running back); Aidan Kinney (placekicker & defensive back); Sawyer Fox (punter); Isaiah Cooper (defensive lineman); Alex Gonzalez (defensive lineman); Jaden Castellon (linebacker); Jason Hong (linebacker); Luke Riffle (defensive back); Noah Aragon and Sage Wayans (honorable mention).
The newly created DUDES award, to incentivize aggressive defensive football and keep players safe, was added to the list this year.
“On the football field, the DUDE is the player on defense that is all over the field hitting and creating havoc to stop the offense,” said Fred Freking, who helped come up with the award. He a SPHS alum and the father of Jackson Freking, a Tigers’ quarterback.
The DUDES award goes to the leading junior tackler on the team. During Sunday’s banquet it was presented by Ittai Shadmon to linebacker Quinn Stirling. As South Pasadena High continues to improve safety on the football field, the award handed to Stirling was a new Riddell Sped Flex helmet.
“The SPHS football program did not have any Riddell Sped Flex helmets two years ago,” explained Fred Freking. “These helmets are used by the majority of NFL and college programs due to their enhanced safety features.”
A generous donation from the SPHS Class of 1988 helped purchase 20 Riddell Speed Flex helmets for the program. James Mason, Kyle Eng, Chris Tanaka, Mark Withers and John Toro were among those instrumental in making it happen.
“The SPHS athletic department budget is very small and programs must fundraise to meet their needs,” Freking said, noting that the school’s current athletic director, Anthony Chan, was able to use school funding to purchase five Schutt F7s in 2021 and five more this year. “We wanted every player to have these especially safe but expensive helmets.”
The school’s Booster Club raised more than $30,000 through Blast Fundraising, working Saturday night bingo, and selling merchandise at the team’s Inaugural Fall Football Kickoff Party. Funds fell little short for further purchases “so we asked the South Pasadena DUDES (Dads uniting Dads in Education and Service) to donate a helmet,” said Freking, of the team’s newest post-season honor.
And they did, coming up with the cost of a new one, roughly $400. In the process the DUDES Award was born.
“SPHS Football can always use additional funding to better train, support and protect our SPHS scholar-athletes,” said Freking, among those on hand for the banquet. “Coach Chi and Coach (Jason) Barnes did a fabulous job sharing stories about every one of the football players. “These young men and their parents will remember this season forever. The banquet was an excellent send off for the seniors and motivation for the returning players to work hard to have an even better season next year.”
Chi praised the efforts of Val Huntley, the team’s mom, for putting Sunday’s event together following a series of delays due to COVID and other setbacks, noted the coach. “It just got postponed one after another, but thanks to Val and her organization, she made it happen and did a great job,” he said. “She made it special this year for the seniors and the rest of the teammates. It was nice to celebrate our team’s accomplishments. It was a great season.”