South Pasadena High School head football coach Jeff Chi knows to not underestimate his friend and adversary Jason Sarceda, who coaches La Cañada.
“Jason and I go way back,” Chi said. “He’s got some big boys out there. I’m thinking he had something up his sleeve and, sure enough, he did.”
La Cañada came out strong with Ivan Ostry behind center, but the Tigers made big plays down the stretch to outlast the host Spartans, 36-30, in the teams’ season opener last Friday.
“It was a really hard-fought game,” said SPHS senior Terrence Sweetman, who led the state with 13 interceptions in 2019. “Our team gave amazing effort. We kept on going and never gave up.”
The unlikely hero of the game was a sophomore who only got on the field because of an injury to a defensive back. Richard Conti stepped in and scored the Tigers’ final two touchdowns.
“He wasn’t even a starter,” Chi said. “But he did a fantastic job. We had some key young players that came out and made some plays.”
The Tigers (1-0 overall record) struggled to contain Ostry, a quarterback who transferred from Rosemead and ran for 2,284 yards and 28 touchdowns last season, but took advantage of the winded standout late in the third quarter with a game-changing interception from Conti, who returned the pick 25 yards for a score. SPHS quarterback Noah Aragon connected with Cole Stirling for a two-point conversion to cut the deficit to one, 30-29, with 28.3 seconds remaining.
On the ensuing drive, the Tigers defense managed to contain the Spartans’ elusive quarterback and forced a turnover on downs.
On third down and 17 from their own 17-yard line, Aragon threw a short pass to Conti, who ran past defenders and into the end zone for an 83-yard touchdown to give South Pasadena a 36-30 lead with 7:51 remaining in the game.
“They had some big plays,” Sarceda said. “I never thought that hitch would go for so many yards. That turned the game. We gotta rally up and tackle. It’d be a different ballgame if we rally up and tackle him.”
La Cañada threatened to come back by marching into Tigers territory late in the fourth quarter. Ostry showed his athleticism with a big run that would have placed the Spartans in a good position to score but a holding call pushed them back to the South Pasadena’s 42-yard line. Two plays later, senior Zazriel King picked off Ostry with 2:49 remaining and the offense ran out the clock for a hard-earned victory.
“I think we had an awesome team win tonight,” said Aragon, who completed 19 of 34 passes for 298 yards, one touchdown and an interception. “We all came together and stayed with each other. We never gave up hope on each other. We kept on fighting. We got down in the second quarter but we came back and won this game as a team. I think we have a future here.”
The junior quarterback also rushed for 25 yards and three touchdowns and showed resiliency in a pocket that would often collapse due to the pressure from the Spartans. His favorite target was — of course — Sweetman, who caught 10 passes for 139 yards.
“I love his positive attitude,” Chi said of his quarterback. “He’s always taking the opportunity to learn from his mistakes and is very positive with his teammates. He’s good at seeing the bigger picture of what he needs to do as a quarterback, and he knows he’s going to make mistakes. He knows everyone else makes mistakes, but it’s a matter of playing it through from the first quarter to the very last and keeping it cohesive and executing toward the end. I think he did that for us when he needed to.”
Chi’s defense also came through when they most needed it to. Though Ostry ran for 161 yards and had three touchdowns, the Tigers contained him in the final quarter and prevented him from making any big plays.
“He’s a heck of an athlete,” Chi said. “He just needs to not do too much. I know he got tired doing too much and that helped us out. He gave our defense a headache, but we made an adjustment and really protected the perimeter so he didn’t go wild.”
Junior Alex Gonzalez led the defense with nine tackles and Owen Quimiro added eight. Stirling recorded a sack, and Jack Riffle had one of three interceptions for the Tigers.
South Pasadena will take the week off and prepare for a showdown with its Rio Hondo League rival San Marino. The two teams will battle for the Crowley Cup on Friday, April 2, at Titan Stadium.
“That’s the game,” Chi said. “We are looking forward to that and preparing for it. That’s the fun part.”
Being On the Field Is a Victory For Players, Coaches
The date and environment may have been different, but for the South Pasadena High School and La Cañada High School varsity football teams, the feeling of playing under the Friday night lights was the same.
Players, coaches and fans could disconnect from a COVID-19 world for nearly three hours to enjoy some high school football; the Tigers had not played an official game in more than 16 months.
“It’s been quite some time,” said SPHS quarterback Noah Aragon. “It’s been about a year and half since I got to play this game that I love so much, and it just felt amazing. Just getting out here, being with the guys, scoring touchdowns and doing our thing is awesome.”
The final score — which favored South Pasadena, 36-30 — was seemingly irrelevant to many players and coaches. Just being on the field was a victory, especially the seniors. The Tigers boast 11 on their roster and a young Spartan squad has six.
“I’m really happy for our seniors to get the opportunity to get the opportunity to be out here to play,” said La Cañada head coach Jason Sarceda. “We were excited. We’ve been excited. We’ve just been waiting for the opportunity.”
Terrence Sweetman was certainly grateful to put on the pads again. The South Pasadena standout who led the state with 13 interceptions in 2019 was anticipating a senior year without football.
“I honestly didn’t think it would happen,” he said. “I was preparing not to [play]. I was preparing to just run track, but it’s amazing we can come out and play. I felt safe.”
Tigers head coach Jeff Chi echoed his player and said he was already preparing for next fall season.
“We were just getting into that offseason mode then all of a sudden we’re told we got to go,” he said. “I thought, ‘What?’ So we’re trying to gather all the players back, get them in shape, get our timing back on offense and be cohesive on defense. It was a challenge.”
It was a welcome one for Sarceda, whose belief in a season never wavered in what has been a difficult year for all.
“We never lost faith that we were going to be able to play,” he said. “I know it’s been tough, but we as a family stayed with it all, losing players, transfers and so on and so forth. There was heart in all of our guys and they kept on grinding. We kind of felt like it was going to happen because we were determined to make it happen.”
La Cañada’s Ivan Ostry certainly made it happen for himself. The senior transferred from Rosemead High School after the El Monte Union School District announced in January that it would cancel the football season.
“It felt good,” said Ostry, who rushed for 2,284 yards and 28 touchdowns as a quarterback in 2019. “It’s definitely a blessing and I’m glad to be here. … [Playing football] was definitely very unexpected. The change is chaotic, but I’m glad to be on the field. Of course I miss my old teammates, but it’s good to make new friendships and new bonds. I love this team.”
The joy and love seemed to be contagious despite the rivalry between South Pasadena and La Cañada. There were plenty of examples of sportsmanship throughout the game, such as players giving props to the opposition for a good play.
“It felt amazing,” Sweetman said. “I love playing these guys. They’re all great people and gave great effort.”