South Pasadena High’s hopes of winning its first CIF-Southern Section football championship since 1975 came to an end Friday night but not without plenty of praise from the man guiding the Tigers good fortune this season.
At the helm of South Pasadena’s run through the playoffs, ending with a 28-21 loss to Montclair in the semifinals and on the doorstep to the title game, was Jeff Chi, whose team was seconds away from sending the game into overtime only to see the Cavaliers score in dramatic fashion and closing out the Tigers season.
“I’m proud of our guys in how they came back from the preseason, went through some obstacles during the regular season, but played some pretty good football and qualified for the playoffs,” he said when it was all over. “We lost a heart-breaking one at the end. It’s tough when you get that close.”
Montclair scored with only four seconds remaining in the game as Mathew Tenajero bolted 18 yards up the middle, bounced off tacklers, and fought his way into the end zone, breaking a 21-21 deadlock.
“It just took the wind out of us with that score at the end,” said Chi, hoping his team would have picked up the victory in the overtime period. “I wish it hadn’t of ended that way.”
The Cavaliers went some 40 yards on their final drive with a minute to go in the game as the home crowd erupted when Tenajero reached the goal line.
The road to get to the semis wasn’t an easy one, as the Tigers landed a postseason spot after finishing third behind Monrovia and Pasadena Poly in Rio Hondo League play with a 3-2 record after going 2-3 in non-league. However, while both Monrovia and Pasadena Poly were placed in different playoff divisions South Pasadena surprising was seeded No. 1 in Division 13 and made the best of it, recording a CIF first-round 21-14 victory over Magnolia and a 49-6 quarterfinal win over Western Christian before falling to Montclair.
“Winning and losing is just part of life,” said Chi after Friday’s contest. “When you’re given an opportunity, you either take advantage of it or you don’t. You have to make the most of every situation possible and learn from it. We all wish we could have gone further.”
Montclair took a 14-0 lead after the first quarter before South Pasadena tied with a pair of touchdowns in the second. In the seesaw battle, the Cavaliers scored again, taking a 21-14 lead into halftime.
The Tigers’ 14 second quarter points came on a 2-yard run by running back Jack Riffle and an 18-yarder by quarterback Noah Aragon.
There was no scoring in the third period as the Cavaliers held onto a narrow seven-point lead, but in the fourth the momentum shifted South Pasadena’s way. Montclair drove the ball to the Tigers’ one where it was stopped on fourth down at the 1- yard line. Instead of kicking the field goal to go up by 10, the Cavaliers turned the ball over on downs and with the ball back South Pasadena struck big, Aragon connecting with receiver Grant Huntley on a 90-yard scoring pass with 5:07 left to knot the score at 21-21.
The Tigers finished the season with a 7-6 overall mark while Montclair moves onto the CIF finals, improving to 9-4.
While it’s difficult to end it at this stage, Chi, his coaches and players can take some solace in the knowledge the Tigers reached two of their three goals this season. While the Tigers didn’t win the league title – knowing the difficulty of getting past Monrovia every season – they did go to the playoffs and beat rival San Marino.
Once in the postseason, the head coach stressed that he wanted his club to make the most of the opportunity. “We weren’t sure where we fit, but with the new CIF playoff format of pairing teams up we were very uncertain where we were going to fit,” said Chi. “When we saw where we were seeded, we were very surprised, but we were thankful for the position we were in and from that point on focused on seeing how far we could go, getting better each week.”
The Tigers got far indeed, only one step away from that long-awaited CIF crown.
It’s onward for Montclair, a 26-25 CIF first round winner over West Valley before handling San Gabriel 48-12 in the quarterfinals with ease, now moving onto play Arlington next week for the championship.
Chi, his coaches and players are disappointed they won’t be one of the two teams. “I’m grateful for the players that I coached,” he said, “and the coaching staff that worked so hard. I’m grateful for the fans we have. They travel well with us. It has been a very good experience. I wish we could have come back home with a win. I guess that’s what we have to work for.”