It’s never easy losing, especially in the playoffs, admits Jeff Chi, yet the South Pasadena High football coach can find some solace after the Tigers’ 34-21 CIF-Southern Section Division 11 semifinal loss last Friday to Bellflower knowing the program he’s guiding is on an upward trajectory.
For the second straight year, South Pasadena finished on the doorstep of reaching the championship game, Chi recognizing, despite coming up short of a season long goal of a CIF title, that plenty of positives came out of a highly successful 10-3 season.
An important one is the Tigers’ overall record.
“Someone reminded me that we had our first 10-win season in a long time,” said Chi. “That’s a huge sense of accomplishment for this group of guys. I think that’s something to be very, very proud of.”
From June, starting with summer workouts, through an undefeated nonleague 5-0 season, a 3-2 mark in Rio Hondo League play, first-round and quarterfinal playoff wins leading up to the loss to the Buccaneers “our guys played tough and disciplined throughout it all,” the coach praised. “We’d have liked to have gone further, but the kids worked hard, very, very hard, and overall had a good season.”
In beating the Tigers, Bellflower (11-2) now plays in the finals against Walnut (10-3), a 28-3 semifinal winner over Rim of the World of Lake Arrowhead, for the chance to claim the CIF crown Friday.
Walnut will be pressed to slow down Bellflower’s high-powered rushing attack. Like they’ve done against opponents all season, the Buccaneers kept the ball on the ground in their semifinal victory, gaining huge amount of yardage with a powerful – we’re coming at you – offense. The Buccaneers did not complete a single pass all night against the Tigers.
Bellflower is used to rolling over teams, picking up anywhere from 250 to 350 yards on average per game operating out of the vintage – think Notre Dame football in the 1960s – double wing offense, featuring nine players up front and the quarterback handing the ball to an interchangeable running back, who often gallops freely through the defense.
In the formation, the Buccaneers lined up with a center, two guards, two tackles, two tight ends and two wingbacks – all on the line. The signal caller takes the snap, hands the ball to the ball carrier and the race is on.
“The way it’s set up, they’re stacking the line versus your nine or eight players up front where they try to win that battle,” explained Chi. “We knew coming in it was going to be a tough one. We told our guys we couldn’t make any mistakes and would have to stop them a couple of times on defense in order to have a chance.”
Simplifying it, the Tigers game wanted to match Bellflower in scoring most of the way, make the Buccaneers punt at least twice, capitalize offensively on opportunities when they did, and put more points on the board at the end of the night.
Three costly turnovers by the Tigers were not factored into the plan. “If we had limited them, we would have had a better shot at winning, obviously,” said Chi.
The Tigers scored on their initial drive, Jason Hong carrying the final 4-yards of a 14-play drive, to open the game but the Buccaneers answered with a touchdown of their own. Later in the first quarter, a Tigers’ fumble near the Bellflower goal line was scooped up by the Buccaneers’ Christian Fargas and returned for a 90-yard Bellflower touchdown.
“So instead of us being up 14-7 us, it was 14-7 them, and it was a huge momentum swing,” Chi explained.
The Buccaneers scored again before the half to take a 21-7 lead into the locker room and tacked on another touchdown in the third quarter to lead by three TDs, putting the Tigers on their heels as the clocked ticked down on their season with every Bellflower play.
“We were behind and tried to catch up, knowing that when we had the ball we had to score real fast because we were trying to save the clock,” said Chi. “We knew they were going to eat up the clock once they had the ball and the lead. That’s pretty much what they did toward the end. They tried to throw the ball twice on us, didn’t complete either one and stuck to the run.”
Tigers’ quarterback Jackson Freking, who finished the night connecting 16 of 30 for 223 yards, found Richard Conti for a third quarter 35-yard touchdown pass. Conti finished the night with nine catches for 146 yards, while teammate Quinn Stirling hauled in six passes for 68 more.
Two fourth quarter TDs, one by each team, rounded out the scoring – Hong going a short distance for his second touchdown on the night for the Tigers.
Defensively, the Buccaneers held Hong to 67 yards on 14 carries. He left the game for a stretch after nursing an injured shoulder but later returned. The junior running back entered the semifinal contest after two impressive outings in the playoffs, picking up 306 yards and four touchdowns in a 43-35 first round victory over Yucca Valley and 235 yards and three more TDs in a 35-21 win over St. Margaret’s in the quarterfinals.
“Hong had a great season for us and was the difference offensively in a lot of games,” said Chi, noting the Tigers’ offensive line played a big role in the running backs’ impressive season ending numbers – 1584 yards on 256 carries for a 6.2 per carry average and 26 touchdowns. Teammate Matthew Takasugi contributed 290 yards on 53 carries and two TDs.
South Pasadena’s ground game was complimented with the solid play at quarterback, as Freking finished the year completing 121 of his 211 passes for 1,997 yards and 16 TDs. His big targets were Richard Conti with 50 catches for 1045 yards and 10 scores, followed by Quinn Stirling with 43 for 620 and three touchdowns and James Dowd with 16 for 202 and a pair of TDs.
South Pasadena, looking to knock off Bellflower, was on a stretch run that could have produced its first CIF championship since 1975 with a win over the Buccaneers and one more against Walnut in the title match.
“It’s about matchups,” said Chi, talking about Bellflowers one-dimensional offense. “That’s why you see some teams beat up on other teams. Their offense is built around their offensive line, 10 guys blocking for one with some big guys up front. We were limited in not having the biggest defensive line and that kind of hurt us. So, the matchup wasn’t good. This offense [Bellflower] is effective for certain schools, and if you have a big offensive line and have decent running backs, you rely on those guys working as a team. You better have some defensive linemen who can penetrate and get in there to stop it. If you don’t, you’re going to be in a lot of trouble. They just kind of wore us out a little bit. They have a good combination of off tackle power, speed to the outside with plenty of blocking by the big boys up front.
“Obviously, Bellflower is going to the CIF championship for a reason,” said the Tigers’ coach.
It marks the second straight year South Pasadena was on the verge of playing for the title as it dropped a 28-21 semifinal encounter to Montclair in the final seconds in 2021.
“Last year, being there for the first time, we were very excited,” said Chi. “We were very thankful we had the opportunity. We had same expectation this year of winning the game but fell short. It’s disappointing, but we’re already looking to next season, working with the younger guys who are returning to get better and try to get back there again next season – hopefully with a different outcome.”
On Monday, Chi announced those who made the All-Rio Hondo League team from South Pasadena.
First Team: offensive lineman Ivan Becerra; wide receiver Richard Conti, running back Jason Hong, defensive lineman James Dowd, linebacker Quinn Stirling, defensive back Luke Riffle and punter Sawyer Fox.
Second Team: offensive lineman Thomas Carter, wide receiver Quinn Stirling, running back Giovanni Cruz, defensive lineman Isaiah Cooper, linebacker Matthew Takasugi and defensive back Harrison Farley.
Honorable Mention: quarterback Jackson Freking and center Aidan Marrujo.