It helps to be there in the past, insists South Pasadena High football coach Jeff Chi, watching his team go deep into the CIF-Southern Section playoffs a year ago and coming ever so close to playing in the title game.
Although the Tigers didn’t have an opportunity to take part in the Division 13 championship, in the mind of their coach they came away with a solid learning experience that has carried over to this season and helped prepare them in their quest to go further this time around.
“I think the seniors last year set a tone for our program in order for us to go onto the playoffs and win ball games,” said Chi, who guided the Tigers to a 43-35 first round CIF win over Yucca Valley last Friday night at home, this season moving up to Division 11.
Going into the contest, he noticed his players weren’t “overly anxious or excited,” Chi adding that they “acted like they had been there before and were very confident.”
Those on the Tigers’ roster who were around in 2021 won’t soon forget the narrow 28-21 CIF semifinal loss to Montclair as the Cavaliers closed out South Pasadena’s season, scoring with only four seconds on the fourth quarter clock 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.
Putting that one aside won’t be easy, yet Chi likes to use it as a motivating tool to get the most out of his club. The Tigers are now focused on their next opponent, St. Margaret’s, as they get set to board a bus for San Juan Capistrano in Orange County Friday night to face the Tartans in the CIF quarterfinals.
St. Margaret’s comes into the 7 p.m. CIF Division contest with a 5-6 overall mark, finishing third in the Orange Coast League with a 4-2 record. The Tartans moved on after knocking off 3-8 Segerstrom 55-27 in their first round win.
South Pasadena, the lone CIF survivor in Rio Hondo League after Monrovia, San Marino and La Canada all lost their initial postseason CIF games, has put together a solid 8-2 season, including a 4-2 third place finish in league.
Chi knows if he can get another solid performance out of running back Jason Hong, the same kind of effort he had against Yucca Valley, the Tigers have a good chance of coming out on top against San Margaret’s. The Tigers go-to player when key yardage is needed bulled his way for a whopping 306 yards on 37 carries and four touchdowns – 2, 4, 2 and 19 yards – ending the Trojans’ season with a 7-3 mark, 5-1 for second in the Desert Valley League.
“By far it was his best game in terms of yards and performance wise,” said Chi, “so I guess we’re benefitting from him peaking. I’m glad and happy for the kid that he had such a great game.
“Typically the teams that win are the teams that can run the ball, so I’m happy to have him on our side,” continued Chi. “We’re excited to see what he’s going to bring this week. Hong is basically making a name for himself on the big stage of a playoff situation. He deserves it based on the hard work he’s put in.”
The Tigers’ coach said it was “pretty remarkable” watching a high school player go over the 300-yard mark in rushing, combined with the standout play of his quarterback, Jackson Freking, who connected on 16 of 20 for 191 yards.
It proved to be a one-two punch Yucca Valley couldn’t stop.
“I’m just glad we were able to balance it out with Hong’s outstanding game along with the quarterback distributing the ball well all night, which kept the defense on their heels,” said Chi. “Freking made the most of his opportunities and didn’t make too many mistakes. He was able to manage the offense and clock well, helping us get the win.”
Quinn Stirling was on the receiving end of 10 Freking’s passes for 138 yards while Richard Conti and Elijah Garcia hauled in two apiece, each totaling 29 yards for the Tigers.
“Quinn has been a clutch player for us the whole season,” praised Chi. “He has no fear and doesn’t get nervous and when the ball is thrown he catches just everything. He’s made big play after big play.”
Hong’s running mate in the backfield, Matthew Takasugi, pounded the ball for another 53 yards on 8 carries and scored once from 17 yards out.
A little razzle-dazzle came near the end of the second quarter when South Pasadena faked a field goal against the Trojans as Conti took the snap and found Nick Eshom on an 18-yard scoring pass.
“It was a huge momentum swing,” Chi said. “It was a play we had been working on the last three to four weeks and we found a place to use it. It worked to perfection.”
The game was tight early, 14-14, after the first quarter before the Tigers outscored the Trojans 19-0 in the second to take a 33-14 lead at the half. Yucca Valley looked to make a comeback, putting 14 points on the board, allowing only 3 for South Pasadena’s in the third quarter. Both teams traded touchdowns in the final period as Yucca Valley posed little threat of a comeback down the stretch.
“We came out flat in the third quarter and they kind of took advantage of us, but in the end we took control, converting some key runs and passes on third down conversions that worked in our favor,” explained Chi.
The Tigers, with an opportunity to make the score more lopsided, were close to scoring one last time late in the game, but opted to go into the victory formation and down the ball.
Watching St. Margaret’s on film, Chi says the Tartans are “very efficient” out of the spread offense, especially at quarterback and skillful group of receivers.
“Our db’s (defensive backs) are really going to be tested and we’ll have to put pressure on their quarterback,” said Chi. “It’s going to be tough because he releases the ball real quick to the open guys. He can throw the ball to any of the four receivers they have, so we have to be alert.”
The coach added, “They do look disciplined, mentally sound, so I think it’s going to be another good match.”
Three victories away from a long-awaited CIF title, Chi likes what he continues to see in his team’s “energy, focus and drive, which says a lot about their character and commitment they have for the program,” he said, talking about his team. “They really believe they can go pretty far and we’re going to do our best to get them there.”