First published in the Oct. 28 print issue of the Outlook Valley Sun.
As part of a high school football pilot program, Pasadena Poly cultivated an opportunity for the Panthers to host La Cañada High in the hallowed grounds of the iconic Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, which has been in operation since June 1923.
“It’s once in a lifetime,” Spartan Corey Cheung said of the game. “Most people dream of just playing in the Coliseum at USC, so it’s a real blessing to be able to do that because so many legends are made there and it’s such a unique experience.”
On the field, La Cañada held a 24-7 lead in the first half, only to see the Panthers claw their way back and score the game’s final 27 points for a 34-24 Poly victory last Thursday night in the first-ever Rio Hondo game between the two schools.
“I’ve been coaching football for 25 years, before that playing for 12 years, and this might have been the most exciting game of my life,” Poly coach Chris Schmoke said.
Pasadena Poly originally reached out to the Coliseum, but the idea morphed into something that may provide broader opportunities for many going forward.
“I’m super thankful for the Coliseum for really taking us up on it, and I hope this actually allows other schools in the future this opportunity,” Poly assistant athletic director Thomas Sale said.
After on-field warmups, both teams left the field before each got the opportunity to be announced and emerge from the tunnel through a gauntlet of their cheerleaders.
“It was almost surreal taking the field, walking out through that tunnel a bunch of hall-of-famers have walked through,” Spartan Brandon Shepherd said. “I had to take a moment to absorb it all and then pretend it was a normal game.
Otherwise, it would have got to be too much, but it was really cool and something I will always look back to.”
Poly (5-3 overall record, 3-1 in league) scored first, but La Cañada (5-4, 1-3) would then score the next 24 points, a result of three straight possessions ending in a touchdowns and successful two-point conversions.
With 7:25 left in the first half the Panthers trailed 24-7, but from that point on the hosts held the Spartans scoreless.
“We were playing great and then we disappeared — offense, defense, everything,” La Cañada coach Dave Avramovich said. “Effort kind of shrunk and offensively we just stopped moving the ball. It’s a really frustrating result. There is no doubt we can play with these guys … We just weren’t up for it in the second half and I don’t know what that is.”
The Panthers came in with a game plan to run the ball and executed it throughout.
“We wanted to limit their possessions and keep the clock moving,” Schmoke said.
Poly’s Jason Mayo tallied a game-high 134 yards and two touchdown runs on 24 carries. The senior also caught two passes for 15 yards, with one going for a touchdown.
Panther Alex Zie amassed 131 yards in 20 carries with one touchdown. The senior caught one pass for 15 yards.
“We’re securing our spot in the playoffs and we’re going to be second place in this league,” Mayo said. “It’s a huge win for us.”
Panther quarterback Colin Mathews completed five of 10 passes for 41 yards with two touchdowns and rushed the ball eight times for 47 yards. The senior also sealed the win on defense, intercepting Spartan quarterback Macky Plocher with 1:05 left in the fourth quarter.
“It was a crazy experience and to get the win was just the best thing you could ask for, honestly,” Mathews said.
Plocher would finish four of 16 for 104 yards, with a touchdown and the one interception. Shepherd led the Spartans in rushing with 13 carries for 71 yards and a touchdown. Cheung chipped in with 59 yards in nine carries and one touchdown. The junior also had three receptions for 58 yards, both game highs.
Zie returned the opening kickoff 30 yards. The Panthers than drove the remaining 58 yards in eight plays. The first seven were runs setting up a play-action play where Mathews connected with Robert Marion Sims for a fingertip grab in the back left corner of the end zone for a 7-yard touchdown.
La Cañada got rolling on its second possession when Plocher connected with Anthony Venneri over the middle, who broke a tackle and took it to the house for a 46-yard score.
La Cañada immediately got the ball back on a textbook onsides kick down the right sideline that Venneri recovered at the Panthers’ 26-yard line. Soon after, Shepherd ran right for a 15-yard touchdown.
Another empty Poly possession led to a third straight touchdown for La Cañada, this one on a 23-yard run by Cheung on a fourth down.
The Panthers scored twice in the final 4:25 of the half trim the deficit to 24-21 at intermission. The first was a 3-yard touchdown run by Mayo and the second was an 8-yard pass from Mathews to Mayo.
Pasadena Poly retook the lead for good with 4:32 left in the third quarter as an 11-play drive culminated with a 5-yard touchdown run by Zie. Spartan Andrew Gevorgian blocked the PAT kick attempt to keep the score within a field goal. The final touchdown of the contest came with 7:42 to go on a 2-yard Mayo rush.
“Credit to Poly,” Avramovich said. “They did what they wanted to do. They ran the ball hard and ran the ball well inside and it was what it was.”