SPHS Tigers Football | Team to Play Temple City Friday Night

South Pasadena will host Temple City on Friday in the traditional homecoming game at Ray Solari Stadium. Kickoff is set for 7 p.m.

PHOTO: Eric Fabbro | SouthPasadenan.com News | South Pasadena will host Temple City on Friday in the traditional homecoming game at Ray Solari Stadium.

Now that his team has faced arguably its toughest test of the season, odds of winning should significantly improve as South Pasadena High prepares to host struggling Temple City Friday night in the second week of Rio Hondo League play.

Tigers’ coach Jeff Chi likes the idea that his team is in a good position to get its mojo back after falling to Monrovia 35-21 in the league opener, ending South Pasadena’s string of five straight victories over non-league opponents.

The Wildcats took a giant step in their quest to repeat as league champions, knowing South Pasadena, a contender to make a bid for the title, will no longer stand in the way.

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The 4-2, 1-0 Wildcats were heavy favorites, but the now 5-1 Tigers took their best punch early and kept it close late, earning praise from Chi that this bunch can compete with anyone on the schedule.

“I couldn’t be more prouder,” he said. “Our guys came out and competed with one of the better teams in our league. We just have to regroup, get our mindset and be ready for the rest of the teams we play.”

Confident going in, coupled with a good week of practice, Chi liked his team’s chances when the two squads lined up, even though many thought South Pasadena had little chance of coming out on top against a formidable Wildcat squad.

Not backing down, the Tigers’ stayed toe-to-toe much of the way with their league rival they hadn’t beaten since 2003. The game was locked 14-14 at halftime, but Chi knew his unit could have been up six points had two first half field goal attempts not gone astray.

“Our kids believed we could have beaten Monrovia,” Chi said. “At one point, I thought  ‘We are dominating the game, moving the ball, shutting them down, and have got them on their heels.’”

In his next breath, the coach added: “Our guys played their hearts out.”

PHOTO: Henk Friezer | South Pasadenan.com News | SPHS Tigers versus Monrovia

Breaking the tie, Monrovia scored a pair of third quarter touchdowns to pull ahead 28-14 going into the fourth. Each team had a touchdown in the final period to close it out.

Following the loss, it didn’t take Chi long to start thinking about his team’s next opponent, cautioning his players kneeling down before him during his post-game remarks, telling them to put the lone defeat behind them, to not let up, and get ready for what’s ahead – a Friday Night Lights 7 p.m. homecoming contest against the Rams he hopes will bring back that winning feeling again.

“I told the players to not take anything for granted,” said Chi, as his team gets set to play a Temple City team that is 2-4 and coming off a 54-12 loss to Pasadena Poly last week in their league opener. “We played against a pretty tough team in Monrovia, but ‘You can’t let up now. You have to come at these guys with the same energy, focus and do your job.’”

Chi added, “If we do all that, we’ll be okay.”

Turnovers and a string of infractions that didn’t go South Pasadena’s way led to frustration on the Tigers’ sideline, Chi saying: “It was really lopsided in penalty calls. Flags here and there really killed our momentum. I don’t want to take anything away from Monrovia, but we really kind of beat ourselves with penalties. It’s one of those games you wish you could go back and play again.”

South Pasadena’s biggest misstep came as the Wildcats were holding onto a 28-21 lead midway through the fourth quarter. Tigers’ quarterback Jackson Freking connected with Richard Conti on a 34-yard pass that went for touchdown. A major momentum shift however took place when the play was nullified, South Pasadena called for what Chi deemed a questionable chop block.

Minutes later, Monrovia’s Carlos Hernandez picked off a Freking pass, returning it into South Pasadena territory and after the Wildcats worked the ball down field, Ethan Najera went the final five yards for the score, giving the visitors a two touchdown lead with just over three minutes left in the contest.

“The flags really came at critical points of the game, especially that one,” said Chi. “It’s was really tough.”

The Tigers were quick out of the gates, scoring the first time they touched the ball as Sawyer Fox was on the receiving end of a 72-yard first quarter pass from Freking, tying the score at 7-0.

Jason Hong had another solid effort, rushing for 138 yards on 22 carries and pulled the Tigers to within a touchdown, 28-21, on a 4-yard run with just under 10 minutes remaining in the fourth quarter.

“He’s a big part of our offense,” said Chi. “When we need those three or four yards we can always count on him.”

Conti, who hauled in six passes for 100 yards on the night, scored the Tigers only other touchdown, a 20-yarder from Freking in the first quarter.

“He made some amazing catches, out-jumping his defenders,” Chi said of his top receiver. “He kept us in the game with his catches. He’s very impressive.”

Freking connected on 15 of his 30 passes for 233 yards to go along with his pair of touchdowns, but did throw two interceptions.

Despite the misfires, Chi likes what he sees from his senior quarterback, who sat out the Tigers’ final non-league game, a 29-14 win over Alhambra after suffering a bruised his heel against Heritage Christian on September 9.  “For the most part he has led our team well,” said Chi of Freking’s play. “There was a point in the game where he got banged up a little bit with his ankle and that kind of hindered him a little bit. He fought through the pain and kept playing. I’m proud of the way he competed. He really believes we could have won, too. He had a gutsy performance.”

The Tigers’ coach expects his team to rebound from the Monrovia setback, potentially run the table over the final four league games and be among the three Rio Hondo League clubs to reach the CIF playoffs at the conclusion of the season. A year ago, South Pasadena reached the CIF-Division 13 semifinals only to lose to Montclair in the final minute.

“Coming into this season, we had high expectations for these kids,” said Chi. “Last year, they set the tone how they could compete in the playoffs, and we want to get back there. This year’s seniors have set the foundation for how we can compete with Monrovia. As a team, I know we’re heading in the right direction with the leadership of this group of players.”

PHOTO: Henk Friezer | South Pasadenan.com News | SPHS Tigers versus Monrovia