Their body clocks might have said it was time for March Madness, but South Pasadena High School football players had their minds set on Friday Night Lights when Pasadena Poly came calling to kick off the weekend and football season in one fell swoop this past Friday.
The two schools have much in common: both have feline mascots, share the orange-and-black color scheme and Poly frequently uses Roosevelt Field for night home playoff games. Now they will share the notoriety of playing the first football contests in a month previously more notable for St. Patrick’s Day, spring break and a return to Dodger Stadium.
But in the COVID era, high school athletes and coaches will take whatever they can get and they got plenty last Friday night.
“This was all about the kids,” said Tigers head football coach Jeff Chi, who clearly prioritized opportunity over performance. “It was really great to see the seniors finally get to play some football and hopefully enjoy their senior year.”
SPHS showed some reasons for fans to be excited, as junior quarterback Noah Aragon – a transfer from Cathedral High School in Los Angeles – displayed flashes of brilliance directing the offense while senior Noah Leider paced the defense, with help from cornerbacks Terrence Sweetman, Zazriel King and Bo Donlevey.
Senior middle linebacker Cole Stirling and junior Jack Riffle also showed why they will be expected to play key roles. Just a sophomore, Matthew Takasugi contributed solid play on the line of scrimmage.
The two teams traded 10-play offensive drives during the untimed scrimmage, which was attended by a limited number of spectators who were immediate family members of the participants. Fans of the Panthers also had the distinction of being the first to use the renovated visitors’ grandstand at Ray Solari Stadium.
With few practices to prepare for the contest, Chi was looking to see what might end up as a winning combination.
“We are putting things in perspective,” said Chi. “We need to have realistic goals for our kids and have very little time to put it all together.”
Pasadena Poly had an advantage in that the Panthers had a full assemblage of players, given that it has only two competitions scheduled for the season: last Friday’s scrimmage and tonight’s game against Arcadia Rio Hondo Prep at the Rose Bowl. After that, Poly will fold up the football tent and move on to “Season 2” sports. South Pasadena has already lost several student-athletes to other athletic pursuits, such as baseball, basketball and track though some are playing multiple sports.
“Poly was very aggressive up front and we were a little passive,” said Chi. “We seemed to do several good things but then followed that up with mistakes, which the kids realized afterward. The scrimmage also gave us an opportunity to focus on our younger players, and there is definitely a lot of potential there.”
The Tigers travel to La Cañada High School this evening to open Rio Hondo League play against the Spartans at 7 p.m. Coaches know very little about early league opponents — even under the best of circumstances – but under COVID conditions, it’s basically a crapshoot.
“It’s weird because we don’t have any film on these guys,” said Chi, referencing the tradition of coaches trading video of previous games for mutual familiarization. “They are an unknown factor. We will prepare for them with a certain intention but we really don’t know what they will do. We will focus on our game scheme. The team that adjusts well and makes the fewest mistakes will come out on top.”