SPHS Football | Tigers’ Future Looks Bright

South Pasadena High coach Jeff Chi wishes his team was playing for a CIF-Southern Section Division 13 championship this week, but said he’s proud of what his club achieved this season.

PHOTO: Eric Fabbro | SouthPasadenan.com News | South Pasadena will host Temple City on Friday in the traditional homecoming game at Ray Solari Stadium.

It might be over, but South Pasadena High football coach Jeff Chi isn’t looking back. He likes what he sees in the Tigers’ future.

In the aftermath of his club’s 28-21 CIF-Southern Section semifinal playoff loss to Montclair last Friday night he was already thinking about the 2022 season.

“I’m excited for what’s ahead because we only lost six seniors (to graduation),” he said, noting that some big time contributors in quarterback Noah Aragon, receiver Grant Huntley and running back Jack Riffle are among the players departing the program, but recognizes there’s still plenty of talent left in their wake stating “Hopefully the younger guys will step it up and fill their shoes.”

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School is out this week on account of Thanksgiving break and Chi said he and his coaches plan to meet with the team in the coming days following the holiday. “We’ll talk about what their goals should be during the off-season and what we expect from them,” he said. “Since we don’t have school, I think it’s good to be away from football for a week. We’re going to give the players some time to recover, reflect on the season. We’ll probably start hitting the weight room after the winter break (in January).”

With the loss to Montclair, South Pasadena ended the season with a 7-6 overall record, including a 3-2 third place finish behind Rio Hondo League champion Monrovia and Pasadena Poly. The Tigers reached the postseason seeded No. 1 in CIF Division 13 and beat Magnolia out of Anaheim 21-14 in the first round and Western Christian 49-6 in the quarterfinals before falling to the Cavaliers in a cliff-hanger.

A lot time and effort has been put into the past three months, with Chi spending the better part of his weekends watching upcoming opponents on tape, talking to his coaching staff and devising a game plan for the next opponent. With Friday’s loss to Montclair, outside of watching some final sequences of the last game, Chi had a free weekend. “It was different,” he said. “It was kind of nice to have a break, but I wish we could have had one more week. It’s bittersweet.”

Instead of South Pasadena playing for the Division 13 championship it will be Arlington facing Montclair in the finals.

There was a will to win all season long from a team Chi said was undersized compared to most squads on the Tigers schedule. “Our coaching staff did a great job of preparing them,” he said. “Our guys worked hard every game, and came out with some huge wins.”

The Tigers were ever so close to sending Friday’s game into overtime, but the Cavaliers, like South Pasadena, fought to the finish, prevailing in the end.

“I want to give credit to Montclair,” said Chi. “They did a good job. Sometimes things don’t work out the way you planned. It’s unfortunate. I think our kids learned a lot about giving it all and fighting to the very end. They came very close. We knew we had to play our best to come out with a win and we just came a little short this time. We never gave up.”

That was demonstrated in the fourth quarter when South Pasadena, trailing 21-14, stopped the Cavaliers at the 1-yardline. Chi was surprised Montclair lined up to go for the touchdown on fourth down instead of putting itself in position to kick the field goal and go up by 10.

The Tigers made the stop, took the ball over at their own one, ran the ball out to the 10-yardline before Aragon connected with Huntley on a 90-yard scoring pass, and suddenly the game was knotted at 21-21 with just over five minutes to go.

“Noah threw the ball about 20 yards, hit him in stride and Huntley outran the defense,” said Chi, describing the play. “It was pretty exciting.”

With only four seconds left on the clock, Montclair’s Matthew Tinajero ran the ball in from 18 yards out, giving the Cavaliers the victory. “It’s heart-breaking because we really felt we were going to stop them there and go into overtime,” said the Tigers’ coach. “It just didn’t work out for us.”

Chi watched some of the game on tape last weekend, including Montclair’s deciding TD, and “we just didn’t do a good job of tackling,” he said. “Sometimes is just happens at the wrong time. It is what it is, I guess. It’s a tough one.”

With a bye included, Chi said, “It was a very long season. Week in and week out we had a very competitive 14 weeks. That’s a very lengthy time for these guys to be focused and be at the top of their game. Especially after a loss, they had to show a lot of mental toughness and a strong will to continue to work hard. They were very resilient, very persistent. I just can’t say enough about these guys.”

After every practice, the team would bring their raised helmets together and yell “1-2-3 Tigers, 4-5-6 family,” the coach saying, “It’s about football family here. They worked hard for one another.”

Admittedly, Chi said it can be “emotionally mentally draining” coaching the sport, especially during games, but he’s grateful for his coaching staff and the fans who come out to support the team. “I think that whole energy did help a lot with our team. It’s just a good makeup of what our program is all about. It’s about the kids, the family, and school. We as coaches do it for the love of the game and want our kids to work hard and seek success. We want them to understand that hard work does pay off. Hopefully they can take that outside high school, knowing if they want something that’s worthwhile, it’s important to sacrifice and work hard to achieve it.”

Now that the 2021 season is officially in the books, looking back Chi said, “Overall, I think it was a good run going to CIF. Our guys accomplished a lot to get there, beating Temple City, La Cañada, San Marino.”

The latter was “huge,” he said, considering the Tigers broke a 10-game losing streak to their neighboring rivals, narrowly getting past San Marino 24-21. “Our senior class can now say they beat those guys.” Chi said. “It’s something they can take with them for the rest of their lives and I hope they enjoy that. And for the younger guys, they’ll be asked to keep working hard to keep it that way. Yes, that was a big win for us.”