First published in the August 12 print issue of the South Pasadena Review.
Football season is around the corner and the South Pasadena High School varsity football season is ready to tackle its upcoming schedule with hopes of claiming its first Rio Hondo League title since finishing 2-1 in the 2020-21 COVID-shortened campaign.
After reaching the CIF-SS Division XIII semifinals last year, the Tigers are hungry for a repeat of their historic season and a chance to topple perennial powerhouse Monrovia for a league championship.
“Our goal is to win the league title and qualify for the playoffs,” SPHS head coach Jeff Chi said. “It’s always been the same challenge every year and that’s to beat Monrovia; they are just filled with a talented group of athletes there. It’s going to be a challenge so we really need to get better and better each week and hopefully when we do see them, we will be in peak condition to compete with them.”
The Tigers have five nonleague games ahead of their Rio Hondo League opener against Monrovia on Friday, Sept. 30. It will be a tough hill to climb against last year’s league champion, especially after suffering a 56-7 road loss but this year SPHS will be playing on its home turf.
The last league and regular season game for South Pas is at rival San Marino on Friday, Oct. 28, which is another game the Tigers have circled on their schedule. SPHS defeated visiting San Marino, 24-21, last season for the first time in 11 years, and the Tigers will hit the road with hopes of making it back-to-back victories over their league rivals.
“It was great winning last year, and I know those guys are very hungry to come back and get a little payback against us,” Chi said. “I know it’s going to be a tough game, so our kids have to realize that and really work toward getting better and executing. They really have to come out and be on top of their game against San Marino because I think they will be ready for us again this year.”
SPHS lost only eight seniors to graduation last school year, but some of those graduates included key offensive and defensive players such as Noah Aragon, Jack Riffle, Grant Huntley and Jaden Castellon. However, Chi is confident the 2022-23 senior class, which is nearly double the size of last year, is ready to step up and fill the void.
Senior captain Jackson Freking is returning for his final year as South Pasadena’s starting quarterback and he is coming off a great junior campaign. He was the backup to Aragon but still got plenty of minutes in the pocket. He tallied 19 completions in 39 attempts for 309 yards in the air while adding 44 yards on six carries on the ground. Displaying his versatility, Freking also had 18 receptions for 200 yards.
“All of our offensive skills have the caliber to be the best in our league and I think our defense is very talented as well,” Freking said. “I think we need to keep putting in the work. We have potential, but I don’t think that’s here yet. As long as we keep working, it’ll come out. It’ll be fun; we’re going to put on a show.”
Senior Richard Conti, who finished second on the team in receiving yards with 298 on 24 receptions last season, will do his best to replace Huntley as South Pasadena’s top aerial target. Conti and Freking already have a friendship that predates high school all the way to when the pair were just months old, so fans are hoping the duo connects on multiple big plays this season.
“Conti showed us he could be an all-league wide receiver as a sophomore,” Chi said. “Last year he played with a little bit of injury but it’s just a matter of time before he can showcase his talent with his skill and his speed and ability to score, so we are excited to see him out there.”
SPHS recent grad Jack Riffle, who led last year’s team with 203 carries and 1,334 yards in addition to 23 receptions for 239 yards, will be a tough body to replace, but Chi is confident in a pair of juniors to give the same, if not better, production. Jason Hong was just a sophomore last year but still produced the fourth most rushing yards (208) on 37 carries behind a trio of seniors. Meanwhile, first-year player Zeke Gavlak has the potential to match Hong’s production on offense.
“I think those guys can split time a little bit and give us some production like Jack did last year,” Chi said. “Hong is a tough little guy; I’m excited to watch him run the ball this year. I think he’s going to be the man this year and hopefully come [the game against Lincoln High of Los Angeles] he’s going to be able to really showcase his talent and how exciting he could be for an offense.”
The Tigers have some high expectations for themselves with hopes of improving on their 7-6 overall record from last season, but SPHS has the talent to make it happen. Chi is excited about his big, strong core of defensive linemen such as seniors Dylan Feak and Isaiah Cooper, junior Sawyer Fox and 6-foot-6 sophomore James Dowd. Sturdy defense and a potent offense put South Pas in an excellent position to challenge Monrovia, San Marino, La Cañada, Pasadena Polytechnic and Temple City for a league title.
“I want our guys to work hard and really play for one another and just see where this season leads too,” Chi said. “Let’s not worry about anything else but getting better every day.”
The Tigers will host Lincoln High of Los Angeles in a nonleague season-opener on Friday, Aug. 19, at 7 p.m., followed by a road matchup at Maywood CES on Friday, Aug. 26, at 7:30 p.m.