Tigers Top San Marino to Clinch Playoff Berth

First published in the Oct. 29 print issue of the South Pasadena Review.

South Pasadena High School varsity football coach Jeff Chi stood near the midfield logo at Ray Solari Stadium, his players and their admirers toting trophies here and there as a seemingly endless stream of photos ensued.
Just a few minutes earlier, Chi’s Tigers had defeated San Marino, 24-21, in one of the more thrilling contests in the rivalry’s 67-game history, scoring the game-winning touchdown with less than a minute remaining.

One might think that Chi, who has coached at the school for parts of five decades, might be actively involved in the wild postgame celebration, and not the bystander, considering his personal history with the spectacle.
“This was a great high school rivalry football game,” Chi said with as much emotion one might expect from a man walking out of a library. Chi is either a master of understatement or was in shock at the time, but his measured response seemed the perfect reaction to a pageant that elicited enough passion to last an athletic lifetime and had been highlighted by a roller coaster from fans on both sides of the stadium.
South Pasadena backup quarterback Jackson Freking found a wide open Grant Huntley behind San Marino’s secondary with 1:06 left in the game for the winning touchdown as the Tigers claimed the varsity perpetual trophy and Crowley Cup — the two artifacts which go to this annual rivalry’s winner — for the first time since 2010.
The victory also pulled SPHS to within four games in the overall series with San Marino, as the Titans’ lead has shrunk to 33 wins against 29 losses. Three games have ended in a tie.

Photo by Raymond Quan / The Review
Quinn Stirling caught four passes for 46 yards and also led the Tigers’ defense with 12 tackles.

Buoyed by a packed crowd that showed up for the rivalry, Homecoming and the pregame induction of two dozen student-athletes into the SPHS Hall of Fame, the Tigers immediately seized momentum.
The Tigers needed just six plays to find the end zone when quarterback Noah Aragon sprinted 40 yards around end to give South Pasadena a 7-0 lead following Aidan Kinney’s extra point.
The Titans tied it up when quarterback Niko Mavridis and wide receiver Andrew Hornberger hooked up on their first of three scoring passes to make it 7-7 late in the first quarter.
Jack Riffle put the Tigers ahead 14-7 on a one-yard plunge with 8:23 left in the second quarter and Kinney provided the Tigers with a 17-7 halftime advantage with a 27-yard field goal 53 seconds before the intermission.
San Marino trimmed the lead to 17-14 with 7:43 remaining in the third quarter on a 45-yard touchdown connection between Mavridis and Hornberger.
The San Marino defense held the Tigers in check and San Marino seemed poised to keep the Crowley Cup when the Mavridis-to-Hornberger connection struck again from 13 yards out, giving the Titans a 21-17 lead with three minutes left in the contest.
But Freking, who entered the game when Aragon was injured, found wide receiver Grant Huntley in a crease amidst four defenders for the game-winning 30-yard touchdown with 1:07 left in the contest, setting off a raucous celebration in the home grandstand.
As the game clock expired, it took Huntley and an assistant coach exactly 19 seconds to cross the field to retrieve the cup and trophy, which had not been in South Pasadena’s possession since 2010.
The word “Ohio” reverberated through the team’s postgame scrum.
“Ohio,” Chi said with a chuckle. “That is something that we picked up years ago. Sometimes we just mention a quick name because we have to communicate quickly.”
Friday night, Ohio meant that San Marino was in a three-deep pass defense, which called for a specific set of routes.
“Grant went to the seam and Jackson saw the opening right away,” said Chi.
In fact, Huntley had noticed the nuance and brought it to the attention of the coaching staff.
“Grant is a smart player,” Chi continued. “He has been in the program for four years and on varsity for three. He saw that the play should work. He was able to run down the field and was never touched. Jackson threw a great pass and it was a perfectly executed play.”
Freking completed seven of 11 passes for 111 yards after taking the reins from Aragon, who was eight of 11 for 71 yards.
Senior Alex Gonzales let the squad in rushing with 68 yards on seven carries while senior Jack Riffle added 33 yards on 10 tries. Aragon contributed to the cause 50 yards on three carries.
Huntley led a well-balanced receiving corps with four catches for 81 yards. Quinn Stirling pitched in with four catches for 46 yards and Sage Wayans made two grabs for 20 yards. Before taking over at quarterback, Freking was on the other side of the equation, catching three of Aragon’s passes for 28 yards.
On the other side of the ball, Stirling led an aggressive defensive effort with 12 tackles, followed by Jason Hong (nine), Devin Robinson (eight), Jaden Castellon (five) and Luka Berk, Michael Takasugi, Isaiah Cooper, Wayans, and Gonzales, who were credited with three apiece.
“Our linebackers did a great job of handling the run,” said Chi, who singled out middle linebacker Hong for a solid effort. “San Marino has a solid running attack and we were able to keep it in check all night.”
There will be plenty to keep in check tonight, when South Pasadena (5-4 overall, 3-1 in the Rio Hondo League) travels to Monrovia to take on the undefeated Wildcats in the final regular season game of the year. The Wildcats are a perfect 9-0 overall and 4-0 in league action, but Chi isn’t unraveling the white flag. Not by a long shot, even though most think that is the role the Tigers will play tonight.
“My thought is that every game we are on the field is a game that we should try to find a way to win and that is true of Monrovia,” Chi said. “It is our job to find a way to put our players in a position to compete. They are very good. But we have spent the past couple days finding out what they are good at and trying to take it away.”
South Pasadena has already clinched at least third place in the Rio Hondo League and an automatic postseason bid, but the Tigers can earn a share of the league championship with an upset win over the Wildcats, who most would agree are prohibitive favorites.
“If everyone wins their position and we execute, there is a chance we can win,” Chi said. “We don’t want our kids to go into the game doubting. We want our kids to compete.”
A reprise of last Friday night would be a good place to start.