It’s Playoffs for Turn-Around Tigers

Ivan Estrada (20) is escorted down the field by Tiger teammates en route to a touchdown Friday night, helping South Pasadena to a 40-10 victory over La Canada. Photo by Henk Friezer

Last Friday night’s homecoming victory over La Canada was the prelude. Sunday provided the joyous finishing touch – the South Pas High varsity football Tigers are going to the playoffs.

The Tigers got the good news just after noon on Sunday, learning they had been selected as an at-large team in the upcoming CIF Southern Section Division 13 playoffs.

They will be traveling about 60 miles to Fillmore High in Ventura County this Friday for a 7:30 p.m. first-round game. Fillmore finished the season with a 7-1 overall record, and in second place in the Citrus Coast League.

The news came some 36 hours after the Tigers finished off a 7-3 regular season with a 40-10 comeback victory of Rio Hondo League rival La Canada to cap off Friday night’s homecoming festivities in South Pas.

The Tigers finished third in the league with a 2-2 record, so they did not get one the league’s two guaranteed playoff spots. Those went to 4-0 Monrovia and 3-1 San Marino.

So between Friday’s win and Sunday’s announcement by the California Interscholastic Federation, the Tigers played another game – the waiting game.

But that ended with another victory, as the CIF determined the Tigers had earned their way into the postseason, just one year removed from a 3-7 finish.

Coach Jeff Chi said the Tiger coaching staff was going to start focusing fast.

“The only thing we saw is that they played La Canada and they played Temple City,” said Chi – mentioning the two teams South Pas closed the season against, winning both.

Fillmore beat La Canada 48-0 on Sept. 13, then rolled past Temple City 42-3 the following week.

Chi said he knows the Tigers will have their hands full against the Flashes – but at the same time, he expressed confidence South Pas can advance.

“You know, I think it’s a team that’s obviously well-coached, but at the same time, I think it’s a decent team where we can compete and possibly come out with a win,’’ Chi told the Review.

None of Sunday’s drama would have happened had not the Tigers won on Friday – and that came with some drama of its own, with the Tigers falling behind 10-0 in the second quarter but then rallying for 40 straight points.

A homecoming crowd somewhere north of 1,000 was on hand to witness the win.

Give the Tiger defense much of the credit this victory, as it forced a fumble early in the second quarter and recorded four interceptions – three by safety Terrence Sweetman (one with under a minute to go in the game) and one by linebacker Jonathan Choi.

Sweetman has been a key factor for the Tigers all season, finishing with 12 picks. Chi credited his defense for making adjustments and putting the Tigers in position to rally from that 10-0 hole.

The Tigers scored 13 points in the second quarter, 14 in the third and another 13 in the fourth.

“They did a great job out there,’’ Chi said of his defense.

Jonathan Choi heads for the end zone after an interception leading to a South Pas touchdown. Terrence Sweetman added three picks for the Tigers in their victory. Photo by Henk Friezer

“I think this is one of the few times we saw the [defensive] line putting pressure on the quarterback. Our secondary and our linebackers were all over the ball in the passing game — knocking the balls down, getting in the way, getting interceptions. It was good to see them all a part of that win as a defense.”

The offense also did its job, with quarterback Samuel Luna-Long throwing for 84 yards on 13 passes with two touchdowns, and running back Ethan Hong gaining 146 yards on 29 carries for two more scores. For Hong, 105 of those yards coming in the second half.

Overall, the Tigers had four rushing touchdowns and two passing touchdowns. Both of Luna-Long’s TD passes went to wide receiver Ivan Estrada, who finished the game with three catches for 66 yards, plus 46 rushing yards on four carries and a rushing TD.

“We did enough [on offense],’’ Chi said. “I mean, [a balance] is ideally what we want on the offensive side of the ball. As you get to the playoffs, teams come out — and if you’re one-dimensional, they’ll stop you, so we have to be balanced.

“We talked to our guys — Ethan [Hong] has been getting better and better each week running the ball, getting a good feel of what’s in front of him. That’s due to all of the linemen as well. They did a great job of blocking tonight. We were watching and they were just pushing the (La Canada defensive) line. In the pass game, too — Samuel had some time and he threw the ball nicely, and he also helped us with his running game, too. He got some key first downs with his legs.”

Now it’s on to the playoffs. The waiting game is over.