In a season full of ups and downs with some unusual moments thrown into the mix – including a rare Monday night football game – in the end, South Pasadena High finds itself in the chase for a CIF-Southern Section playoff berth.
That was one of the Tigers biggest quests once a bid for their first Rio Hondo League title since 1975 and a chance to beat rival San Marino for the first time in almost a decade fell short.
Now the focus is on upending La Cañada in the regular season finale Friday night to help solidify an opportunity to play in the postseason after holding on to beat Temple City 21-14 in a thriller Monday – yes, oddly Monday – after the game was postponed three days when the decision was made to delay it due to unplayable field conditions.
Scheduled for last Friday in Temple City, a broken water pipe under the playing surface forced the contest to relocate to South Pasadena for a 6 p.m. kickoff on Monday. It follows another quirky situation when a scheduled Tiger home game against Pasadena Poly earlier in the season had to be switched from 7 p.m. to 3 p.m. on a Friday as a result of a lack of officials. Following the 35-20 South Pasadena victory, the officiating crew quickly left, headed over to San Marino High for the Titans-Monrovia game, doing double duty that day.
South Pasadena High Coach Jeff Chi likes the idea that his team has finally dispatched of the Rams after the long delay because now it comes down to full concentration on a one game make-or-break season to possibly reach the playoffs.
It wasn’t easy getting past a tenacious Temple City squad that pushed the ball from its own 10-yardline down to the Tigers’ 1, failing to convert on the final play of the contest as the South Pasadena defense came up with a huge game-saving stop, clogging up the middle when backup quarterback Felix Avitia couldn’t get the final yard. Following the play, Tiger players danced off the field, jubilant to get the narrow win.
“It was great to stop them down there,” said Tigers’ coach Jeff Chi when it was finally over, as he only has a couple of days to prepare for the Spartans. “This one is over and now we can focus on La Cañada,”
A win is a win, and Chi will take it even though “it wasn’t pretty,” said the Tigers’ coach. “We had penalties where we were placed in tough situations, putting us in a hole all night. We just can’t win ball games like that. We just didn’t play smart. Give Temple City credit. They ran at us pretty good, but I’m just glad we came out with a victory. They were very well coached over there and it was a hard fought game.”
Temple City struck first, going 53 yards on only five plays the first time it had the ball, taking a quick 7-0 lead with 8:10 left in the first quarter when Rams’ starting quarterback Alex Vera hit Shawn Pan on a 21-yard scoring pass.
South Pasadena tied it at the 11:01 mark of the second quarter when Ethan Hong, the Tigers’ workhorse who rushed for 95 yards on 14 carries and two touchdowns on the night, bulled his way up the middle from 3-yards out to tie it.
The Tigers pushed their second touchdown across three minutes later for a 14-7 lead when Quentin Pithey scored on a 3-yard run up the middle with 8:07 to go in the second period.
The seven-point lead held up until the Rams’ first possession of the second half when Lewis Fots picked up the final four yards of a 65-yard drive. The Rams’ powerful running back was a force, especially in the second half after Vera went limping off the field nursing an injured left ankle with only seconds left before halftime.
Hong put the Tigers in front 21-14 with 6:36 to go in the fourth quarter as he punished Ram defenders on a 14-yard TD run to the left side for his second score.
From there it was Temple City’s game to at least tie down the stretch as the Rams muscled their way down field with big catches, including a 4th and 9 pass to Andrew Guitierrez for 25 yards, putting the ball at the South Pasadena 11, and the relentless Fots who sprung loose on short bursts before the long drive ended with a huge celebration by the Tigers as the clock ran out.
Monday’s win gives the Tigers a 1-2 record in Rio Hondo League play, but more importantly improves their overall mark to 6-3, helped by a strong 5-1 preseason. While the top two league finishers –Monrovia and San Marino – automatically reach the postseason – Chi is confident his club will be selected as a CIF at-large team if it can get past La Cañada on Friday when South Pasadena hosts the Spartans in its annual homecoming game and finish with a solid 7-3 overall mark.
“We think we’re in a pretty good position to get that done,” said Chi before his team lined up for a physical battle against the Rams, now 2-5 overall, 0-3 against league opponents with the loss to South Pasadena.
One major goal remains Friday night when La Cañada and South Pasadena lineup against each other. A win in that one could put the Tigers in the playoffs for the first time since 2016. Similarly, the Spartans at 5-4 overall, 1-2 in league, hope they will attract the eyes of CIF as a at-large berth team with a win over South Pasadena.
Win or lose in the regular season finale, the Tigers’ coach has enjoyed being around this unit throughout the highs and lows of the season. “For the most part they have been great,” said the coach, talking highly of his players. “As coaches, they’ve done everything we’ve asked them to do and have fought every week together to win ball games. I’m really proud of these guys.”
Outside of the loss to rival San Marino in the league opener (10-7), a game Chi believes is team should have prevailed, a 49-7 drubbing to Monrovia, and a 35-14 nonleague defeat to Alhambra “everything else has been pretty good for us,” he said, talking about the necessity for the Tigers to end the regular campaign on a strong note and playoff dreams intact.
Chi is most proud that many of his team members have put in long hours in the weight room and into conditioning to prepare for the season, starting their regimens more than a year ago. He believes the hard offseason work has resulted to limited injuries through the first nine games in 2019.
“A lot of these guys were out here last December to prepare for these 10 weeks of football games,” said Chi. “They stuck it out and sacrificed a lot for the program and I appreciate what they have done for us. They are representing our school and have given an all-out effort and you have to be proud of them. There have been ups and downs, but they fought through it and never quit.”
There’s some redeeming value in that, noted Chi, who hopes the dedication displayed by his team will someday carry far beyond the football field. “I know if they take that same attitude after high school they will be successful in anything they decide to do in life,” he said.
A smile comes across Chi’s face when he talks about those who made Friday nights special for him throughout the summer and fall, affectionately calling those he coached a “motley crew,” following up the remark with a chuckle.
It’s easy for him to say he enjoys being around this bunch. “At the end of the day when we have a goal to achieve as a team to win football games, they all seem to come together,” explained Chi. “We have a wide range of kids with many different interests, but they come together to execute on both sides of the ball. It’s nice to see. When you see these guys achieve, you say, ‘Wow, they’ve got it together.’ Watching them work for a common goal makes it fun and exciting to watch.”
Reaching the playoffs rests heavily on the minds of the Tigers, checking off a team goal, “but winning one would even be better,” noted Chi. “The last time we won one was back in 1998 when we beat Azusa. There are certain things this year we didn’t accomplish, like winning the title and beating San Marino, but we still have other goals – win a playoff game. That would be a big accomplishment.”