There’s little mystery to what’s at stake as South Pasadena High extends its football season for a second straight week.
The Tigers, as seemingly everyone knows, are only three straight wins away from winning their first CIF-Southern Section football championship since 1975.
While Tigers’ coach Jeff Chi is well aware of the long drought since winning a title, he taking a low-key approach, saying: “I really don’t like to think about it too much” as he, his coaches and players are – to borrow an old cliché – taking it one game at a time.
Yet, he knows what’s at the end of the rainbow, adding: “Oh sure, it would be great! I’d love to get there and do that.”
The mission for now, however, is simply to focus on getting past the second of four postseason foes standing in the way of a long-awaited CIF crown.
A 21-14 first-round CIF victory at home over Magnolia of Anaheim last week set the stage for the Tigers to travel to Upland Friday for a 7:30 p.m. quarterfinal Division 13 matchup against Western Christian. The 8-3 Fighting Lancers, who finished fourth in the Ambassador League, are coming off a 22-13 first round victory over Riverside Prep (4-8).
“We’re just putting in the time coming up with a solid game plan and preparing our guys to be in the best position to win the ball game,” said Chi, whose club, seeded No. 1 in Division 13, improved to 6-5 overall, which includes a 3-2 third place finish in the Rio Hondo League. “We have certain things we want our players to do, to be in the right position, to block, tackle, and continue to make plays. We’re trying to get to know as much as we can about our next opponent so that we can get that message across to our players.”
Working the game plan close to perfection and Chi is confident his team has a good chance to come out on top against Western Christian, a private school. “Our ultimate goal is to win a football game and in order to do that we have to execute and do what we do best,” he insisted. “If we don’t win this one, there’s no next week.”
A good portion of Chi’s time last weekend was spent looking at tapes of recent games played by the Fighting Lancers. “It’s a little different because it’s a team we haven’t seen before,” he said, as he and his coaching staff were given footage of five Western Christian games played this season. “I watched their last game several times, then I’ve looked at some of their other games to see if they have different formations, any consistency in plays, and changes in personnel. It can be time consuming, but important. There’s a little pressure making sure you don’t miss anything.”
Elijah Vasquez, Darryl Booker and Chuck Weber are the Lancers top receivers, catching their share of passes from quarterback Jared Doolittle while Chi says the Western Christian running backs Dominic Grincerl and senior Roland Garcia make for a formidable duo.
Booker, stressed Chi, “has made some pretty amazing catches. He’s pretty good. And the quarterback gets it out there, so we’re going to have to put pressure on him. We can’t let him sit in the pocket.”
Western Christian with a roster size at about 30, counts on approximately six players who start on both offense and defense. “Our conditioning and being physical will be a key factors for us” said Chi, when asked what it’s going to take for his team to pick up the win.
Reminded of last week’s opening playoff victory over Magnolia, the Tigers coach said, “It was a huge relief. They scored first on us and we said, “What’s going on here? But we slowly came back, got on top and really had to play it out to the very end. I told the kids to enjoy the win, but it won’t be long before you have to get back to work. Now, we’re moving on just trying to get better for the next round.”
Like many, Chi said he was surprised when Magnolia, trailing 14-6 in the third quarter, was faced with fourth down and failed to pick up the necessary yardage for a first down, turned the ball over on downs to the Tigers deep in its own territory. Not long after Tigers’ quarterback Noah Aragon found James Dowd on a 15 yard scoring pass, increasing South Pasadena’s lead to 21-6.
It was a stunning development in the game, helping to pave the way to a Tigers’ victory. “It’s one of those things that if they would have gotten the first down,” said Chi, “people would have thought ‘that coach is a genius.’ But when it doesn’t work you kind of go, ‘What was that coach thinking? It was one of those gamble things. I think he felt like his offense wasn’t as productive at the moment and he didn’t want to give up the ball. He was trying to do everything he could to maintain the ball and get back [into the game]. We did a pretty good job of stopping them all night, so that’s basically what happened.”
Not going away, Magnolia managed to score one more time in the second half after the questionable decision, added a two-point conversion, making it a one-possession game near the end. “But our guys found a way to win it,” said Chi, noting that the Tigers have been “very resilient” all season long. “There have been a number of times when we’ve trailed but managed to come back and pick up the win. Just like last week against Magnolia, when they scored first we didn’t panic, got going and played our game.”
Other points scored by the Tigers in the narrow win came on a 53-yard pass to Grant Huntley and 28-yard run by Jack Riffle.
And now the Tigers are locked in, looking to collect playoff victories, including one against Western Christian Friday night.
“We’re excited for the opportunity,” said the Tigers’ head coach. “Hopefully, we’ll come away with a win.”