It wasn’t pretty, as South Pasadena High’s football coach Jeff Chi explained to his players in the aftermath of the Tigers 7-6 victory over Eastside Friday night, but as he said, wiping his brow, “A win is a win.”
South Pasadena will take it, exhausted in the end as they stopped the Lions, driving for a touchdown in the closing minute, inside the 10-yard line as the clock ran out, bringing running back Kadim Holloyway down on the final play of the game to finally end it.
The Lions opened their final drive at the South Pasadena 42 with 4:23 left in the game and moved the ball down to the Tigers 3, helped by an interference call in the end zone, setting up a first down. But the Tigers’ thwarted the effort in the final seconds, sacking Lions’ quarterback Scott Blankenship at the 9 on the next to last play before stopping Holloyway at the four as the game ended.
Excited South Pasadena players celebrated by dancing off the field, climbing on the backs of one another, celebrating in stark contrast to a week earlier when they quietly limped off after suffering a devastating 59-6 loss El Monte.
“I’ve never seen a football game like that,” said a smiling South Pasadena High Athletic Director Greg Luna. “Both teams played their hearts out. There were lots of mistakes, but it was a good game to watch.”
Indeed it was. It could have been a completely different story for the Tigers had Eastside’s Julius Herrera hung onto the ball in the end zone with 1:07 remaining as the Lions looked to take the lead on that final drive. But as the pass from Blankenship appeared to fall neatly into his grasp, in quickly fell out, falling to the ground. While the home crowd cheered, Tiger players realized they had just dodged a bullet.
“That definitely was a key point in the game,” said Tigers’ coach Jeff Chi when it was all over. “Our kids came up big on that play.”
Eastside had an earlier chance to go ahead, but with the Tigers still leading 7-6, the Lions missed a 25-yard field goal with 9:26 left in the fourth quarter.
While South Pasadena escaped with a victory, Chi and his banged up squad will take it. The road from here won’t be any easier as the Tigers next travel to Arroyo, which beat Schurr 56-16 on Friday. They’ll then face Alhambra and Eagle Rock to wind up the preseason, before facing San Marino, Monrovia, Temple City and La Canada in four tough league matchups.
Chi knows his club could likely be the underdog in all of them. “These kids are playing with a lot of heart and I couldn’t be more proud of them,” the coach said following the narrow victory over Eastside, which made the trip from Lancaster to play a team that has some eight players with bumps and bruises and is down to its third quarterback.
After Justin Huff – the projected starter at the beginning of season – suffered a knee injury in a wake boarding accident, backup Samuel Luna-Long played well in the first contest of the season, throwing three touchdowns in the Tigers’ 35-14 victory Mountain View. But he suffered a slight concussion in the loss to El Monte, leaving the door open for senior Jayden Gallego, normally a wide receiver and linebacker, to start against Eastside.
Not asked to throw much, Gallego completed four passes and threw an interception, but as the game progressed he began to look comfortable in the pocket directing the Tigers’ offense. “Under the circumstances with our top two quarterbacks out, he did pretty well and was able to get the job done,” said Chi, who is expected to have Luna-Long back under center Friday night against Arroyo. Coaches were saying Huff could be lost for season as a result of the summer mishap.
Moving forward, the Tigers’ coach said questions remain as “each individual player has to be accountable for there own assignment, knowing what they are doing,” he said, hoping his team will execute more effectively over the remaining seven weeks of the season. “There are still some questions from players, ‘What do I do?’ They’re just missing their assignments and just have to get better.”
Which might have something to do with the 15 penalties between the two teams Friday night, making it one of the sloppiest games Chi has witnessed as a coach. “It was bad,” he said of the play by both clubs. “We need to clean that up.”
Eastside opened the third quarter by going on a nine minutes drive and, largely due to penalties, netted a mere 30 yards with it ending on an interception by Ruben Echeverria, his second of the night.
In between the barrage of miscues, South Pasadena managed to score its only points on a 6-yard carry by Ethan Hong at the 9:19 mark of the second quarter. Little did he know at the time, but Quentin Pithey’s PAT would be the difference in the game.
Eastside brought it to within one on its next possession, going 69 yards in 10 plays as Herrera scored on a 3-yard run to the right side. A 2-point conversion failed as Blankenship sailed a pass high as the Lions trailed 7-6 with 5:14 left in the second quarter.
Hong had a busy night for the Tigers, picking up 80 yards on the ground on 13 carries. On the other side, Blankenship kept the Lions’ sputtering offense, slowed by the slew of penalties, in the game by rushing for 124 yards on 13 carries.
In those final moments with the game in the balance, Chi was proud his team had the resolve to come away with a victory. “They stuck it out and kept playing,” he said. “Some other year you may have had kids just give up and allow a touchdown, but tonight they fought, fought, fought and the defense came through.”
Smiling, glad that it was over, a relieved Chi said, “We’re going to enjoy this one.”