There’s a scene in the movie “Hoosiers,” which tells the story of a small-town Indiana high school basketball team preparing to play for the state championship, when actor Gene Hackman, playing the role of coach Norman Dale, has members of his squad measure the distance from the free throw line to the hoop and the height of the basket, before delivering some impactful words.
“I think you’ll find these the same exact measurements as our gym back in Hickory,” the coach tells them. “Okay, let’s get dressed for practice.”
The point Dale was making, of course, is nothing changes about the playing surface whether it’s in the tiny town of fictional Hickory or the big stage in Indianapolis where the title matchup in the motion picture was depicted.
No championship will be on the line Thursday night when South Pasadena High faces Pasadena Poly in a Rio Hondo League matchup, but never in the long history of the school have the Tigers played in a larger venue. The Panthers will be the home team for the 7 p.m. game against South Pasadena played in the massive 92,000-seat Los Angeles Coliseum where USC plays its games.
“The football field is going to be the same measurements,” said Tigers coach Jeff Chi, taking Dale’s philosophy for getting his team ready for the important contest. “I don’t know how they are going to adjust the hash marks. I know that’s a little bit different at high school level, but as far as the playing field, it’s going to be the same.”
High School hash marks are 53 feet, four inches from the sidelines while NCAA hash marks are 60 feet from he sidelines. Chi isn’t sure if the adjustment will be made when the two teams square off, but he’s doing everything this week to ensure his squad doesn’t get swept up in the magnitude of the surroundings.
The Tigers, 7-1 overall, 2-1 in league, improved on an already successful season by knocking off La Cañada 41-35 last Friday while Pasadena Poly is 1-6, 1-2 and would like nothing more than to walk away with an upset. After taking on the Panthers, the Tigers will conclude the regular season by going to San Marino to battle their rival, the Titans, 4-4, 2-1 on October 28. Pasadena Poly finishes October 27 at La Cañada.
Not looking ahead, all the focus for South Pasadena is is on the Panthers and a game set to be played in a historic structure with a long legacy as the the L.A. Coliseum has been host to two summer Olympics, a pair of Super Bowls, was once the home to the Rams, Raiders and Dodgers, visited by U.S. presidents and recognized for so much more since its official opening in 1923.
“I hope the kids appreciate the opportunity to play there,” said Chi. “It may inspire some to work harder and get the next level. With that said, we have to be ready to play Poly. I know the kids will have some jitters playing in such a big stadium like that, but they will have to get comfortable, get in a groove and hopefully roll from there.”
Noting that it’s going to be “a little weird” playing in such spacious confines – so large that every one of South Pasadena’s roughly 26,000 residents could find a seat – Chi insists his mind will be focused on coming away with a victory, not its enormous size compared to Ray Solari Stadium on the SPHS campus.
He hopes fans of the team will make the approximate 13-mile drive from South Pasadena to the L.A. Coliseum to take in the game. “We know we have some great supporters from our school, the student body and community,” said Chi. “It will be great to have them out there supporting us. Knowing that we have their support is going to help us a lot.”
Tickets can be bought online until 6pm Tuesday, October 18. Or tickets can be purchased at the Coliseum before the game using the same ticket link, which will reopen at 6pm on Thursday, October 20. More details and parking information can be found on the ticket page.
Over the years, Poly has used SPHS’s stadium for home games, but if that were to happen this year, Chi said it would feel more like a home game for the Tigers.
“I’m sure they don’t want to lose that edge so they opted out with a different site,” he said, saying he believes a Pasadena Poly parent has a connection for the two teams to square off at the L.A. Coliseum. “This might be the only year, so we’re going to take advantage of it and enjoy the experience,” said Chi.
South Pasadena was pushed to the brink in its last outing, Aiden Kinney intercepting a La Cañada pass in the end zone with about 30 seconds left in the game after the Spartans drove the ball down to the Tigers’ 20-yard line. The Tigers, coming out on top 41-35, ran out the clock following the turnover as the South Pasadena sideline erupted following the narrow win on the road.
South Pasadena quarterback Jackson Freking, connecting on 7 of 10 for 279 yards, didn’t throw the ball much, but when he did Richard Conti was usually on the other end of his passes, catching six on the night, four going for touchdowns, as he finished with 275 yards. James Dowd made the other four catches going for short yardage. Jason Hong picked up key yardage when his number was called and the Tigers’ running back scored twice on the ground.
Longtime friends since early childhood, Freking and Conti continue make a solid one-two punch on the field. “He just got open every single time I threw him the ball and he did the rest of the work,” said Freking. “He made me look good. It has been fun. He’s been one of my best buddies my entire life. I got a chance to play football with him since our freshman year and it has just taken off from there.”
Freking said he wouldn’t have had the solid passing statistics without the protection he received from his offensive line – left tackle Ivan Becerra, left guard Vicente Ortega, center Aiden Marrujo, right guard Thomas Carter, right tackle Logan Ayala and Dowd at tight end.
Despite Pasadena Poly’s record, like he often does knowing South Pasadena teams have experienced the same misfortunes over the years of being on the side of lopsided losses, Chi won’t take the Panthers lightly.
“I know they’re struggling a little bit in terms of the quarterback position,” said the Tigers coach. “They’re trying to figure out what works for them. I know they have a young squad. Their offensive line is a very heavy senior group, so I think that’s the key for them where they hope to get the running game going, then spread the ball around [through the air]. They always do a good job of executing those things so we’ll have to be ready. Defensively, they’re going to come at us. So, we have to make sure we protect our quarterback against their five men up front and blitzes. It’s important have to make sure we have enough time to throw the ball.”
With only one loss on the season, the CIF-Southern Section playoffs looming, and the opportunity to play in the L.A. Coliseum, life is, well, pretty good for a group of teenagers from South Pasadena High.
“It’s going to be a great experience for our kids to be in that environment,” Chi said. “It’s a once in a lifetime opportunity. I hope they enjoy it, but recognize that our focus will be in beating Poly. They have to know their assignments and make sure they execute them well.”