First published in the Nov. 12 print issue of the South Pasadena Review.
By Nathan Cambridge
The last time South Pasadena High School won a CIF-Southern Section football playoff game, the average cost of gasoline in the United States was $1.23 a gallon.
This season, the Tigers clawed their way into the postseason looking to end that drought, and that is just what they did.
Behind a strong defensive effort, South Pasadena defeated visiting Magnolia High of Anaheim, 21-14, in a CIF-SS Division XIII first-round playoff game Friday night at Ray Solari Field.
“This is a huge win for South Pasadena High School. We hadn’t won a first-round game since 1997,” South Pasadena coach Jeff Chi said. “Hopefully we can top this one by pulling out a win next week.”
The Tigers (6-5 record), seeded No. 1 in Division XIII in the CIF’s new “competitive equity” playoff groupings, now advance to the quarterfinals to play on the road against No. 8 seed Western Christian in Upland tonight.
Magnolia, the No. 16 seed, pulled to within seven points of South Pas with 9:39 left in the game. The Tigers were unable to cleanly field the ensuing kickoff, giving the Sentinels back the ball. The visitors drove into Tiger territory but a bad snap on third down by Magnolia (4-6-1 record) paved the way for Tiger Alexander Gonzalez to put the quarterback on the ground for a 12-yard loss. Now facing fourth down and seemingly a mile to go, Sentinel quarterback Orion Haymes threw the ball in desperation toward the end zone, where Tiger Aiden Kinney intercepted the pass at the 3-yard line.
“I knew our defense had been stopping them all game and I knew we could do it again,” Gonzalez said. “We all fought hard. It was everyone’s game.”
The hosts then ran out the final 4:01 using their ground game. With 1:29 left on third down and 3 yards to go near midfield, Jack Riffle rushed for a 5-yard gain, allowing South Pasadena to kneel down and run out the clock for its first playoff win in 24 years. Riffle finished with 17 carries for 84 yards and the score.
South Pasadena got the ball first to open the contest and went backwards, losing 9 yards before punting. This gave Magnolia a short field and the visitors drove the ball 22 yards in eight plays, ending with a 1-yard touchdown run by Sean Thompson. Gonzalez then blocked the PAT kick attempt.
“We came in a little bit cocky and that didn’t help at the start. We underestimated our opponent, so we got stuffed on our first drive and they scored a touchdown,” Riffle said. “After that was when we realized we had to kick it into high gear.”
With 8:44 left in the first half, South Pasadena went for it on fourth down and four to go at the Sentinels’ 19-yard line. Riffle took the handoff and broke through the left side of the line for a 19-yard touchdown. Kinney drilled the PAT kick for the lead, and the hosts would not trail again.
The Tigers struck again with 1:24 left in the second quarter. Tiger quarterback Noah Aragon lofted a pass down the right side that dropped into the arms of Grant Huntley, who took it the rest of the way for a 47-yard touchdown.
“That really put us on top going into the half,” Riffle said. “I think that was a major thing because from there we just had to hold them off.”
Magnolia looked to answer in the final seconds of the first half, but Tiger Isaiah Hyun intercepted Haymes near the goal line as time expired. It was 14-6 at intermission.
Near the midpoint of the third quarter, the Sentinels went for it on fourth down from deep in their own territory. They needed 3 yards, but instead lost 4 as the Tiger defense stuffed the rush attempt. On the next snap, Aragon connected with freshman James Dowd for a 12-yard touchdown and, after the PAT kick by Kinney, a 21-6 advantage.
Aragon completed nine of 14 passes for 145 yards and two touchdowns. Huntley had a game-high 85 yards receiving on two catches. Richard Conti had three grabs for 28 yards. Riffle, Nick Eshom, Jackson Freking and Dowd each had a catch apiece.
“[South Pasadena] was keeping their cool and we weren’t,” Magnolia coach Vincent Lobendahn said.