Long after it was over and the stands had cleared, Ray Solari Stadium nearly empty, San Marino High football coach Justin Mesa waited patiently off to the side at midfield as reporters spoke quietly to a somber Jeff Chi, who guides South Pasadena’s varsity program.
Earlier, in the wake of his team’s narrow 10-7 win over the Tigers on the road, Mesa was saying how much he respects Chi for rebuilding South Pasadena’s hopes, projecting the Tigers will make a positive impact in the Rio Hondo League this season.
“I know that South Pasadena has been down a little bit, but I think the coach has done a fantastic job,” praised Mesa, recognizing that Chi’s club has rebounded from a 3-7 mark a year ago and is headed in the right direction under his leadership, despite falling to the visiting Titans and suffering their second loss against five victories this season.
“They look disciplined, they’re tough and they’re executing well,” said Mesa. “So, I have a lot of respect for that guy.”
Told of the kind words, Chi countered, saying, “That’s nice to hear. He did a great job of preparing his guys for us this week. You’ve got to hand it to them. They played well.”
Looking at the Titans 1-6 record going into the game, the Tigers’ coach warned his players all week, “They have nothing lose. They’re going to come out here and give everything they’ve got as if it’s the last game they will ever play. I think we kind of forgot that. We didn’t match their energy and enthusiasm.”
With only a trio of games on the schedule and one loss, the odds are not in South Pasadena’s favor of winning the league title this year, but Chi emphasized in his post-game address to his players, the CIF playoffs are still attainable, but it will mean running the table against the likes of Monrovia, Temple City and La Canada –not an easy assignment. The next two games are on the road as the Tigers don’t return home again until November 1 when they face the Spartans in their homecoming matchup.
For Chi, hoping to end the Titans 9-game winning streak over his club and cutting into San Marino’s now 34-28-3 series lead between the two teams, it will be a matter of lifting his team’s hopes after it appeared going in they had a solid chance of coming away with a victory.
“It was a disappointing loss,” said the Tigers’ head coach. “It was something we were hoping it wouldn’t end like this, but it did. We still have three games in league and we have to take the opportunities we have and go forward with it and try to make it into the (CIF) playoffs and salvage our season and have a good experience the rest of the way.”
The game was scoreless up until five seconds on the second quarter clock as the Titans went into halftime with a 3-0 lead on a 32-yard field goal by Jordan Evans. It was a heavyweight defensive battle as both teams struggled out of the gate. South Pasadena quarterback Samuel Luna connected on 3 of 7 passes for 77 yards in the first two quarters, his longest for 45 yards when he found Grant Huntley down the left sideline on a fourth and 52-yard play. Yes, both teams had dug themselves into big holes in spots as a result of penalties, this one the deepest for the Tigers.
It was tough going for South Pasadena all night against the Titans’ swarming defense, which contained running back Ethan Hong to just 21 yards on his six carries in the first half and locked in on the Tigers passing game.
San Marino, scoring late in the first half, started from its own 31 and began picking up yardage in bunches as receiver Trond Grizzell and running back Matthew Karapetyan became the target of quarterback Connor Short, who drilled passes of 11, 12, 18 and 11 working the clock, and getting his club in position to take the three-point lead just before the break.
The Titans wasted little time extending their lead early in the third quarter, taking the ball from their own 22 and moving it down the field behind the solid play of Karapetyan, the swift running back who ground out tough yardage all night and also caught a key 18 yarder in the drive. The big play came on a third and 10 from the Tigers 46, Grizzell hauling in a 36-yard pass down to the Tigers’10. One play later Nick Singhal bolted his way up the middle and San Marino was in front 10-0.
South Pasadena matched the 78-yard drive with an impressive one itself, going 72-yards in 13 plays and closing the gap 10-7 with 3:46 left in the third quarter on a 1-yard run by Hong. Keeping the ball on the ground much of the way, Hong was called on to pick up the tough yards in the drive while Ivan Estrada pulled in a passes for 12 and 14 yards and Huntley caught another for 19 on a third and 15 play from the Titans’ 21, pushing the ball down inside the three. Two plays later and it appeared the Tigers were headed for another comeback victory with one quarter left to play, trailing by three.
There was no scoring in the fourth quarter, but both teams had their chances. At one point, San Marino set up for a 27-yard field goal, but following a pair of time outs, one by each team in the chess match, the Titans decided to go for it on 4th and 8 from the Tigers’ 12, only to have South Pasadena’s Terrance Sweetman swat it away from Grizzell in the deep, right corner of the end zone.
The Tigers took over on downs, but couldn’t do anything with the ball, and after three quick plays Luna-Long booted a punt 41 yards deep into Titan territory. San Marino struggled to move the ball and punted it back to the South Pasadena with just under four minutes in the game, the Tigers taking the ball on offense deep in their own territory for the final time of the night.
After a pass was incomplete to Estrada, Hong raced around right end for nine yards, a pass to Jonathan Stride picked up a half yard, but on 4th down from their own 22, Hong was stopped short after the officials pulled the chains from the sideline for a measurement on the field. Titan defensive players danced off in jubilation, knowing they could control the clock and walk off with the victory, winning a close one and improving to 2-6 overall on the season.
Hong finished the night carrying the ball 11 times for only 44 yards and 1 touchdown. Luna-Long was 8 of 11 passing for 131 yards, plus he ran for another 20, Estrada caught four passes for 43 yards, Huntley two for 64 yards and Stride two more for 24.
“We were concerned with South Pasadena’s ability to move the ball,” said Mesa after it was over. “What they do, they do it really, really well. The quarterback plays really well and the wide receivers make plays and their running back is a good playmaker, getting yards after contact.”
Mesa felt like his defense had to take away the Tigers passing game and, of course, stop the run as the secondary goal. “If you try to stop everything and then you’re not going to stop anything. We wanted to concentrate on the passing game first and I think we did a pretty good job. We did just enough to win and I’m proud of the kids.”
The Titans’ lopsided losing record going in Friday’s encounter against South Pasadena is a little deceiving, Mesa acknowledged, noting that all the opponents his team faced in the preseason and Monrovia in league play last week will likely end up with winning records. “We were battle tested that’s for sure and maybe at the end of the day it made us a better team, grinding this one out like we did tonight,” he said.
Mesa knows he’s replacing a legend in Mike Hobbie, who resigned his position as both San Marino’s football and baseball coach earlier this year. Taking over as football coach in 2011, he compiled a 72-24-1 record and never lost to South Pasadena in eight games between the two schools.
“Everybody sure let me know that throughout the week,” said Mesa, laughing, “No pressure coach, but…they would say. It seems like I had more visitors in my office this week. That was a conversation … ‘No pressure coach.’ Hobbie did a lot of magical things around here for sure.”
For the Tigers, Friday’s loss means a chance to knock over their nemesis to the east will simply have to wait another year.
“It would have been nice to win,” said Chi, crediting San Marino for a solid effort. “Those kids came out and fought hard. It’s a credit to them and what they’ve done, and I wish them the best of luck.”
South Pasadena’s focus now turns to Monrovia and next Friday’s difficult matchup on the road. “With a win, maybe we could be looking at a three-way tie for first place,” said an optimistic Chi. “They are a good team with a lot of athletic players, and so we really have to play our hearts out, kind of like San Marino did to us. Go after them. Hopefully our guys will take this loss to heart, improve and go forward.”
The stinging defeat “hurts for the kids, the senior group,” continued the Tigers’ coach. “I know it’s going to be with them for awhile, but I hope they can bounce back, and put it together for the remainder of the season.”