When many football fans last saw him, South Pasadena High School head coach Jeff Chi was standing on the navy blue midfield logo at Fillmore High School while his Tigers assembled on one knee in a semicircle. South Pasadena had just lost the 2019 CIF Division 13 playoff opener to the host Flashes, 47-27, to cap an otherwise successful season. The Tigers finished 7-4 overall (2-2 in Rio Hondo League play) and were ranked ninth in the division.
Sixteen months have passed since that unseasonably warm November evening, and much has happened since the 59-mile bus ride.
Fast forward to Monday, when Chi opened practice for what has become the 2021 football season, with players anticipating the transition toward Daylight Savings Time, not away from it.
What never changes is the undimmed optimism that is endemic to a football coach, and Chi is certainly no exception.
“I am excited to be back out on the field,” said Chi, now in his fourth year directing the Tigers. “The players are also excited and they are really glad to be back.”
“Back” is an entirely relative term, as the squad has endured multiple stops and starts since last spring. Chi, however, is pleased at the collective attitude brought daily by the squad to Ray Solari Stadium.
“This has definitely been tough, especially for our seniors,” said Chi. “When we had so many interruptions, they definitely grew impatient but since we got started for good, we are rolling. We are looking forward to playing and have a great attitude.”
When the CIF condensed its typical athletic schedule from three seasons to two due to the pandemic, many student-athletes were forced to make agonizing decisions. In fact, it wasn’t until last monththat the Los Angeles County Dept. of Public Health gave football the green light.
“We have had some seniors and multi-sport athletes who thought there was not going to be a football season so they did not come back,” said Chi. “We lost some guys to baseball and basketball, but we also got some others back to football,” Chi said. “But it is what it is. We can’t expect kids to play three sports at once. We are working with all of the teams and doing our best to share athletes.”
Chi has welcomed 46 of them to practice – spanning all four grades – and he is undergoing the process of trying to figure out where to put them. It is still unclear how many teams schools will be fielding – varsity, frosh-soph, or both – once the abbreviated schedule begins.
“Right now, we have them all working out together and are trying to figure out what positions they will be playing and at what level,” said Chi. “If our opponent has two teams, we will have to be ready. Luckily, we have a large group of sophomores who can play varsity or frosh-soph and are very competitive.”
Among the Tigers’ 10 seniors is Terrence Sweetman, who intercepted a remarkable 13 passes in the fall of 2019, the most in all of California and top-five in the nation.
“Terrence is excited to be back on the field,” said Chi. “He is a dynamic player.”
As is classmate and fellow defensive back Zazriel King, who was also an all-Rio Hondo League selection last season.
“He is a very aggressive and athletic kid,” Chi said.
Four juniors will also play major roles in the squad’s fortunes. Chi is looking forward to seeing where Jack Riffle fits in the big picture.
“He is literally a jack-of-all-trades,” Chi quipped. “He can play any position and will be an exciting athlete to watch.”
Returning lineman Noah Leider is a “physically gifted quiet leader” in Chi’s estimation and look for big things from dynamic wide receiver Grant Huntley. Newcomer Noah Aragon is battling for the starting quarterback spot.
“We are very impressed with what he can do,” said Chi.
The Tigers will face their first test – or at least “quiz” – of the season tonight when Pasadena Poly visits SPHS for a scrimmage at 6 p.m.
“I feel really good about the team,” said Chi. “They have worked very hard and if we have good coaching I think we can reach our goals.”
One of which is to win a Rio Hondo League championship.
“That is always one of our goals,” Chi said. “It has been a while, but we still have that goal. Obviously we cannot go to the playoffs, but winning league would suffice.”