FILLMORE – The season ended with a loss, but this was no lost season.
The South Pas High varsity football Tigers headed home from distant Fillmore on Friday night after falling 47-27 to the Flashes in the first round of the CIF Southern Section Division 13 playoffs.
But make no mistake: Those Tiger players who got off the team bus back home in South Pas had just concluded a successful campaign – making the playoffs for the first time in three years and finishing 7-4 overall and 2-2 in the Rio Hondo League … just one season removed from an injury-filled, 3-7 downer.
Of course this defeat stung, particularly for quarterback Samuel Luna-Long and the team’s 11 other graduating seniors. However, in the bigger picture, they leave as winners, a forever band of brothers who brought grit to every game and honor to the uniform.
This game was a microcosm of the 10 that preceded it.
“They never gave up,’’ coach Jeff Chi said afterward. “I’m very proud of that, and I hope that they keep that same mentality throughout life and just work hard.’’
Said Luna-Long: “Our guys played their hearts out.’
Ninth-ranked South Pas made the 60-mile trip to Ventura County hoping to pull an upset against the fourth-ranked Flashes of the Citrus Coast League, but the Tigers got off to a rocky start and couldn’t blemish Fillmore’s undefeated home record.
“We made a little too many mistakes here and there with the turnovers, just missing our assignments — you know, we didn’t take advantage of the opportunities that were given to us,” Chi said.
The Tigers received to start the game but went three and out, leading to Fillmore’s first touchdown. South Pasadena went out for the second drive, but to a similar result, and ended up punting it away on fourth-and-25.
Fillmore was itching for another long drive down the field, but the Tigers were able to keep the Flashes from getting a first down on a fourth-and-17 from the South Pas 20. The turnover on downs, paired with a few penalties and first downs for the Tigers, turned into South Pasadena’s first score of the game — a 14-yard pass to junior wide receiver Terrence Sweetman to bring the Fillmore lead to one point after a missed extra point.
On the next drive, the Tigers forced a fumble close to midfield but were unable to take advantage and turned it over on downs. That turned into another Fillmore touchdown with less than seven minutes to go in the second — and then another Fillmore TD after a blocked punt. Fillmore also scored with a couple of seconds left in the half to take a 28-6 lead into the locker room.
Fillmore received the ball to start the second half, and Sweetman was in the right place at the right time to intercept and give the offense good field position. After a few attempts, South Pasadena was facing a fourth-and-nine on the 14-yard line. Luna-Long completed a pass to senior running back Ivan Estrada for the touchdown to bring the game within two touchdowns.
South Pasadena forced a three-and-out on the following drive and received the punt at its own 24 — but Luna-Long felt pressure and threw the first of his three interceptions. Fillmore took advantage with the ball on the Tiger 10 and scored a touchdown to go back up 34-13 with less than six minutes left in the third quarter.
The Tigers replied by taking the ball from their 33 and completing a touchdown drive on a 25-yard pass to Sweetman with two minutes left in the period.
The third quarter ended with the Flashes at midfield, and one play into the fourth they were punting it away. South Pasadena had it with decent field position, got a first down, then was faced with a fourth-and-13 on its own 44 — but Luna-Long threw another pick. Fillmore turned that into a TD for a 40-20 lead with about five minutes left in the game.
South Pasadena received the ensuing kickoff, and after a few first downs, capped it off with a 22-yard pass to Estrada for the touchdown with 2 ½ minutes left in the game.
After one last Fillmore TD with about two minutes left, South Pas started its final drive on its own 28 and earned back-to-back first downs before another interception ended matters.
Chi said his team did its best despite being outmatched.
“They’re a well-coached team over there,’’ he said. “They’re a very physical team as well. But you know what? Once we were down, the [proudest] moment for me was to watch these guys not give up and keep fighting back until the end of it.’’
Luna-Long finished the final game of his high-school career 22 for 37 with 227 passing yards, three touchdowns and three picks, as well as five carries for 40 yards.
“They (the Flashes) were a really aggressive team — they kind of controlled the [offensive] line and [defensive] line pretty much the whole game,’’ he said. “It was definitely a factor of size. Those guys were a lot bigger than our guys.”
Luna-Long said he hopes to continue playing in college, whether it’s at a community school like Pasadena City College or a school in the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics — wherever they’ll let him play.
Sweetman, a junior, had a big game, finishing with five catches for 70 yards and a touchdown to go with the interception on defense. He has played both sides of the ball all season — wide receiver on offense and free safety on defense. He had an interception in almost every game this season, including two against Bassett in late September and three against La Canada a week ago.
His 13 picks this season put him in the top five in the nation and at No. 1 in the state.
“What I need to work on is getting [stronger],’’ Sweetman said. “I need to be able to tackle these big running backs coming at me. We’re going to work hard during the offseason — very hard.
“And then we’re going to win next season.”