Looking at the season overall, from the start when South Pasadena High lost two out of its first three games before winning six of eight at one stretch, along with facing COVID protocols each week and the uncertainty of the virus, Tigers coach Jeff Chi likes to use the word “resilient” when describing his team as it heads into the semifinals of the CIF-Southern Section playoffs Friday night against Montclair.
It was a rough start, but once it unfolded, South Pasadena played solid football most of the way, prevailing in the end, handling the pandemic and getting past enough teams to receive a postseason bid.
“Our kids did the right thing, got tested and everyone was able to compete,” explained Chi, talking about the obstacle facing them when it came to the coronavirus. “We had a tough preseason, lost some close games, but our players didn’t put their heads down and quit. Instead they focused on improving and cleaning up their mistakes in an effort of getting better each week.”
South Pasadena, 7-5 up to now, finished 2-3 in nonleague games, 3-2 against Rio Hondo League teams, including a narrow 24-21 win over rival San Marino in a thriller, before beating Magnolia of Anaheim 21-14 in the first round of the CIF playoffs and Western Christian 49-6 in the quarterfinals, setting up a 7 p.m. Friday night matchup on the road against the Cavaliers in the semis.
Chi believes is team is peaking at the right time as it prepares to play 8-4 Montclair, coming off a 26-25 win over West Valley in the first round of the playoffs and a 48-12 trouncing of San Gabriel in the quarterfinals last week. The Cavaliers finished with a 2-1 mark to Baldwin Park in the Mt. Baldy 4 League.
“The past three or four games, some of our key players were a little banged up coming out of the league season,” explained Chi. “We had tough competition against La Cañada, Poly, San Marino, and then Monrovia. Many of our guys are better now, so when we’re 100 percent we can do lot more. We’re running the ball well, passing well, and playing better, especially as guys are coming back from injuries. Hopefully, we can keep it going.”
In getting past Western Christian in last week’s quarterfinals, Chi credited his coaching staff, saying: “They did a good job of preparing our players with a good offensive and defensive game scheme. We just wanted to come out and execute and it seemed like everything clicked.”
The Tigers jumped out to a 21-0 first quarter lead and rolled from there, scoring touchdowns on their first five possessions. “Wow,” said Chi. “We didn’t realize we scored that many times that soon. We encouraged our guys not to let up and we came out with a win, a huge win for that matter and it helps us in continuing our goal of getting to the CIF championship game.”
Every season, South Pasadena sets three goals – to reach the playoffs, to beat neighboring San Marino and win a league title, Chi noting achieving the latter “has always been a tough one, especially having to face Monrovia, but beating San Marino was attained along with going to the playoffs, so now that we’re here we want to make the most of it.”
CIF unveiled a new postseason system this year and when the pairings were announced, South Pasadena found itself surprising ranked No. 1 in Division 13. The Tigers are now only two wins away from their first CIF title since 1975. “Once we got to the playoffs we just wanted to focus on getting better each week and see how far we could go,” Chi said. “Now we’re going to continue to do that.”
Not familiar with any of the teams his club has faced in the playoffs, Chi and his coaching staff has spent long hours during weekends coming up with game plans “as we throw ideas back and forth, trying to figure out the best ways to beat these guys,” he said.
For Chi and his coaches, it’s the love of the game that puts them in their respective roles. “We kind of joke around about that,” said the head coach, a fulltime math teacher on the SPHS campus. “Everyone gets a stipend but when you add up all the hours you put into it – spring ball, summer ball, the season, the postseason – we don’t get anything extra. It is what it is, and we figure it’s going to be about less than a dollar an hour. If you’re doing it for the money you’re in the wrong business. We’re doing it for the kids, the love of the sport, the community and the school, obviously. We’re trying to create a positive environment.”
Between his work in the classroom and on the field, Chi said he puts in some late night hours, adding: “It just comes with the job.”
As his team prepares to play Montclair, part of the game plan asks Chi’s players to “be efficient and productive,” said the coach. “On Friday night, our ultimate goal is to win a football game, and it takes a team effort. We teach them to be accountable for themselves and what their responsibility is to the team.”
Chi never wants to underestimate an opponent, the coach saying: “We know that Montclair has a pretty good running back and their line seems to be pretty decent. They’re going to try to run the ball on us and we have to get ready for it. But then, they can pass pretty well, too, with some good receivers. They will try to off-balance us with the running and passing. It’s a matter if our guys recognize it right away and reacting to it.”
Key Cavalier players on Chi’s radar include running back Mathew Tenajero, fullback Maximiliano Castro, and receivers Jeremiah Ortiz, Orluan Gatson and Eihly Cheung. Speedy Elijah Tehe is a player who “does a little of everything,” said the coach. “He catches the ball, runs the ball, does the reverse, a lot of things.”
Running the Montclair offense will be 5-foot-8 inch tall quarterback Erick Harrison, who “moves around the pocket well, and can take off and run when necessary,” said the coach. “I think the strength is going to be their running game.”
There’s no “next week,” said Chi, for the team that comes out on the short end of Friday’s game when Montclair and South Pasadena take the field. “We’re putting our best guys on everything – offense, defense and special teams. We need our guys to give us everything they’ve got.”
Should the Tigers win on Friday, they will face the winner of the other semifinal contest between Arlington and Anaheim on November 26 in South Pasadena.
“Our players have done everything we’ve asked of them,” said Chi. “They’ve sacrificed a lot with time and effort. We expect them to come in to watch film at lunch, then stick around until 5 or 6 p.m. for practice and they are putting a lot of time into the program. I’m proud of the fact they’ve done that and have been successful.”
Admittedly, it has been a bit uneasy, as Chi has been tossing and turning trying to sleep at night. “The game’s are all that is on our minds right now and it has been very stressful, emotionally involved,” he said. “We just have to say calm as much as possible and see what happens. Regardless, I’m very proud of the kids in what they have accomplished this year and the coaching staff in what they have dedicated to the program.”