One of the major goals of South Pasadena High’s football team this season was reaching the CIF-Southern Section playoffs, something the Tigers hadn’t accomplished in three years.
They took on the task Friday night, but fell 47-27 in the Division 13 matchup, falling short of another mission – to record the team’s first postseason victory since 1997 when South Pasadena beat Azusa.
The Tigers, a No. 9 seed were outmatched against the No. 3 seed in Fillmore, a team with speed, discipline, talent at all positions and size to match, especially up front in the offensive and defensive lines.
“Our kids played their hearts out and I’m extremely proud to them,” said South Pasadena High coach Jeff Chi after the loss. “They never gave up and kept fighting back. I wish we could take away some of the mistakes at the beginning of the game and the turnovers and it might be a different game.”
The Flashes had plenty of rest coming into the game, not playing for nearly a month when they beat Hueneme on the road, 38-0. Recent wildfires and poor air quality in the Fillmore area ended the team’s regular season prematurely.
All week long in preparation for facing the Citrus Coast League champions, Tigers’ coach Jeff Chi knew his club was faced with a tough assignment.
“They are a well coached team, come at you, and kind of remind me of Pasadena Poly, mixed with Alhambra,” said Chi, talking about Fillmore, which improved to 8-1 with the win while South Pasadena finished up at 7-4, including a third place 2-2 record in league play. “They are a very physical team. I think they won the battle on the line, but regardless, I’m just proud of the way our guys reacted and kept fighting.”
With two seconds remaining in the second quarter, Filmore took a 28-6 lead into the intermission on a 4-yard pass from Andy Becerra to Dylan Sierra. It appeared the Flashes were in complete control until South Pasadena climbed back in it in early in the third quarter, propelled by Terrence Sweetman’s 12th interception of the season, a state high. Following the pick, the Tigers were soon in the end zone on a 14-yard touchdown pass from Samuel Luna-Long to Ivan Estrada, closing the gap to 15, 28-13 with 10:09 left the period.
The Tigers were within striking distance, but the Flashes increased their lead to 34-13 on a 10-yard scoring pass to Ryan Gonzales, who helped himself, by picking off a Luna-Long pass while on defense at the South Pasadena 34 and brought the ball down inside the red zone, moments later hauling in Flashes’ quarterback Jared Schieferle’s perfect throw.
But the Tigers, weren’t about to give up in this one as they came right back, this time Luna-Long finding Sweetman down the middle from 25-yards outs as the Tigers made it a two score game, 34-20, with two minutes to go in the third period.
It wasn’t until Fillmore fullback David Tovar rounded the right side from the one, after the Flashes had been stopped three times trying to get the final yard, putting the Flashes on top 40-20 with 5:15 remaining in the fourth quarter, that it looked doubtful the Tigers had enough to get back into it.
Yet, South Pasadena kept battling, knowing their season was close to ending, when Luna-Long launched a pass down field into the grasp of the speedy Estrada, who somehow broke free and scampered the final 10-yards fighting off tacklers as he fought his way into the end zone for a 22-yard score, making it 40-27 with 2:34 left in South Pasadena’s season.
With the game clock ticking down, the Flashes Phillip Cervantez raced 38 yards for a touchdown to close out the scoring, giving Fillmore a comfortable 47-27 lead and final margin of victory.
From the outset, the energized home crowd roared each time the Flashes got a first down and watched their team score the first time it had the ball. The Flashes wasted little time showing why they’re one of the best teams in CIF Division 13 as they immediately took a 7-0 first quarter lead, going 72 yards in 11 plays, as Sierra finished it off, winding up in the end zone after successfully scoring on a 21-yard screen pass four minutes into the game. With just under two minutes in the period, Sweetman was on the receiving end of a 14-yard touchdown toss by Luna-Long, making it 7-6 after the missed extra point.
Three straight touchdowns by the Flashes – A 13-yard run by Nick Jimenez, another 13 yarder by Bryce Nunez and Sierra’s 4-yard catch – gave the Fillmore a hefty lead, which felt like a punch in the gut to South Pasadena, who came out swinging from there. The Tigers were determined to make a full comeback.
Luna-Long finished the night 19 of 32 for 249 yards and four touchdowns, two each to Sweetman and Estrada. He also carried the ball six times for 50 yards.
To go along with his pair of scores, Sweetman made five catches for 70 yards. Estrada contributed nine catches for 96 yards, complimenting his two scores.
Flashes’ defenders focused in on the Tigers big running back, Ethan Hong, holding the senior to 50 yards on 13 carries.
Fillmore came out attacking, showing it physicality from the outset, and finally got the attention of the Tigers, who later returned the favor. “I think it took us awhile before we realized we needed to do the same thing. When we did, good things came out of it.”
Chi told his team “it’s not the end of the world,” losing to a team that put up more points and will move onto the CIF second round next week. He wants his players to remember not to ever give up, either on the football field or in life.
“It’s just who we were all season,” said Chi. “We knew we were going up against a tough team and we never gave up. That’s what I’ll remember about these guys. They fought to the end.”
Going into the contest after making the nearly 60 mile trip to get there, Chi looked at the two clubs as being fairly even, encouraging his players beforehand to have their best game of the season.
Unfortunately it wasn’t on this night.
Well prepared since learning last Sunday morning they would be taking the long trip to Ventura County for the first round game, Chi said his club had a solid week of practice. “They guys were excited, motivated, put in some good workouts, but at the same time we wanted them to enjoy the moment, what they went through and have fun as well,” he said, noting it was the Tigers’ first playoff appearance since 2016 when they were defeated by Aquinas in San Bernardino.
Friday night’s loss was especially difficult as Chi felt like the Tigers would compete with any team in Division 13, especially the second seeded Moors, a club the Tigers lost to 35-21 in a closely-contested game in week four of the season after opening the campaign with three straight victories.
“There’s nobody out there we haven’t seen all year,” said Chi. “We were very competitive, with the exception of Monrovia [a 49-7 loss].”
Well rested, South Pasadena players were encouraged to get a little extra sleep on Friday morning since the local high school was closed on account of a professional development day for teachers. The team left at around 2:45 p.m., arrived in Fillmore just at about 4:30 p.m.., were treated to Jersey Mikes sandwiches by the team parents well ahead of the 7:30 p.m. kickoff and “we played our absolute hardest,” said Sweetman. “No one left anything on the field. It’s just sad we’re not going to play together anymore.”
Added Estrada, “It hurts,” knowing it’s the last game the senior will play. “I love these guys and will miss playing with this team.”
Luna-Long, who had complete command of the offense, noted, “I feel like we accomplished a lot compared to what we had last year when we were mostly young players. This was our 10-0 team when we all played junior varsity. It was special to play with this group of guys. I’m going to miss them.”