Last Friday night at 9:45 p.m., a young man wearing a royal blue football jersey with the words San Marino emblazoned across the chest atop an oversized number 19 trotted onto the field at Titan Stadium. He had accepted the task of kicking a football through an odd-shaped apparatus that most would recognize as a goal post at the east end of the facility in an effort to win a game over the town’s foe in a rivalry that stretches back to the Eisenhower administration. Anyone seeking the identity of the young man would be hard-pressed as neither his name nor number appeared on the roster provided in the official game program sold at the venue. They know it now, especially those from South Pasadena who watched the annual contest. And just in case they didn’t, players, fans and cheerleaders provided a reminder that rang into the chilly, damp night. “Harry!” “Harry!” “Harry!” He has a last name, too, and for the record it’s Wendling. But he will forever be known as the boy who kicked a field goal as time expired to tame the Tigers in the 66th renewal of the battle for the Crowley Cup.
“We have been waiting six months for football to return,” said one fan as he filed out of Titan Stadium on Friday night, “and tonight this town was able to take a nice, long, cool drink.” The final score that was still emblazoned on the scoreboard was of little consequence to most who assembled at San Marino High School on a cool spring evening. It only mattered that they were there. For the record, Burbank’s John Burroughs High School filled in for Temple City and defeated the Titans, 30-14, but the atmosphere that is unique to Friday Night Lights traveled well.
San Marino High School head coach Justin Mesa won’t believe the football season has arrived until he sees the opening kickoff sailing through the twilight sky above Titan Stadium this Friday evening at 7 p.m.
And who could blame him. Since its last game in November 2019, the sport has seen so many stops and starts it should have been accompanied by the yellow flag that flies over NASCAR races to indicate a delay in the action.
But that could all end and the Titans will begin an abbreviated schedule when Burbank’s John Burroughs High School comes calling for Friday’s season-opener at SMHS.
It will certainly be the first San Marino football game ever contested in the month of March, but Mesa has waited so long for the COVID storm to subside that he would agree to just about any stipulation to allow his squad to play.
“The kids are really excited to play,” said Mesa. “They have a high energy level right now and who can blame them. After being off the field for a year and a half, we still have a long road ahead of us. But the guys have developed this ‘us against the world’ attitude that has really brought them together. They are having a good time and that is what you are looking for.”
Calling it “the calm before the storm,” San Marino High School head football coach Justin Mesa welcomed his Titans on Monday afternoon for the first official practice of the season.
“I think it went well,” said Mesa. “The kids have a ton of energy and they are excited. I overheard several of the players say that they had a lot of fun. I could see we were a little rusty, but it was great to get back in the huddle. They were energetic and did everything we asked of them.”
Though Gov. Gavin Newsom’s lifting of the state’s stay-at-home order on Monday has provided some optimism, local school officials are not yet clear about the immediate future of prep sports.
While interpretations of its long-term impact will certainly vary, an announcement last week from an arm of the California Interscholastic Federation — the governing body for prep sports in the state — dealt yet another blow to the hopes of high school athletes for conducting any substantial competitions during the 2020-21 school year.
“Today, I must regretfully announce that we are canceling our 2020-21 CIF Southern Section Fall Sports Championships due to the COVID pandemic,” said the statement from the section’s commissioner of athletics, Rob Wigod.
In a typical year, San Marino High School’s varsity football coach is invited to be the keynote speaker at a meeting of the local Rotary Club shortly before the beginning of an upcoming season — in other words, in early August. However, 2020 is anything but typical, so Justin Mesa instead was asked to speak on Thursday, Dec. 3. Which still was shortly before the upcoming season, if in fact the season ever gets underway, what with fresh stay-at-home orders and the San Marino Unified School District’s facilities already closed for the most part due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Just when Kourosh Hassibi was about to pull the trigger on the beginning of his college football career, the University of Chicago pulled the plug. Like many institutions, Chicago in June decided to put off its entire fall sports season until the first of the year. A burgeoning defensive lineman, the 2020 San Marino High School graduate underwent an impressive transformation during his four-year career with the Titans and was looking forward to getting started at the next level. “I’m really upset that the football season got postponed, because I put in a lot of work in the weight room and training the past few months in anticipation for a fall season,” Hassibi said last week. “But I understand the circumstances and the priority of student safety and health in this pandemic.”
San Marino High School head football coach Justin Mesa claims he paid no attention to the blizzard of rumors that swirled through the prep athletics community ahead of last week’s announcement that games in Mesa’s sport will begin in January. You simply have to believe him, based on his response when a few of the proposed options — the ones that figured in those rumors — were explained to him recently. “I really didn’t pay attention,” Mesa said. “I figured the energy I would have expended thinking about anything that wasn’t sure to come to fruition would just be wasted.”
It’s never been proven to have actually happened, but there is an old story about Lee Corso, one of the anchors of the wildly popular ESPN College GameDay road show, and it goes like this. While coaching Indiana in a Big Ten game against Ohio State, Corso reportedly called a time out when his Hoosiers scored a touchdown and extra point to take an early 7-6 lead over the perennially powerful Buckeyes. Corso asked a photographer to get the scoreboard in the background for posterity’s sake, given that it had been several years since Indiana had held any type of a lead over Ohio State.
The Buckeyes rolled to a 47-7 win and—true or not—Corso holds onto the legend.
Given the end result of last Friday’s season-opening contest, new San Marino head football Coach Justin Mesa in retrospect might consider a similar ploy. His Titans took the opening kickoff, marched downfield and scored the first points of the game on a 34-yard field goal by Jordan Evans to take an early 3-0 lead. The only problem being that—similar to Ohio State—host Charter Oak scored the next 42 as San Marino dropped the first contest in the Mesa Administration.
“Overall, I thought the kids came out with a lot of energy and played very hard,” said Mesa after a few days passed to let the result settle. “But we made a lot of mental mistakes as the night went on and they were very hard to overcome. You can’t do that against a program of quality like Charter Oak and hope to get away with it.”
Charter Oak is and San Marino didn’t. The Chargers found the end zone in just about every imaginable manner and the Titans avoided it in a similar fashion. Charter Oak scored on a 60-yard punt return, a 99-yard interception return and a 28-yard scamper with a recovered fumble.
Conversely, the Titans couldn’t find paydirt after Neven Yaramahdi intercepted a Charger pass and returned it to the Charter Oak seven yard line. While there are baskets of x’s and o’s to decipher, that pretty much tells the story of the opener. The Titans mustered just 81 rushing yards on 21 carries and 151 yards through the air as the hosts controlled the ball, clock and line of scrimmage in true Charter Oak fashion. Titan quarterback Connor Short completed 9 of 22 passes and Yaramahdi was able to squeeze out 44 yards on six carries to lead the way. Junior Trond Grizzell caught three passes for 57 yards and Matthew Karapetyan hauled in two for 48 yards, but that pretty much ends the story.
Senior middle linebacker Seth Matzumoto led the defense with seven tackles, Yohannes Zerihun added five, Seth Canul chipped in with four and Jackson Herren recovered a fumble as the Titans dropped to 0-1.
“We made some mistakes and got very tired as the night wore on,” Mesa said. “A lot of our guys were cramping up and that is something I have to look into as a head coach. The kids are responsible for part of this but overall, it’s the job of the coaching staff to have them ready. We saw areas in which we are lacking and now we have to go to work to get better.”
Mesa said he was impressed with “the initial effort” but said the Titans have to “figure out how to fight after the early stages of the game.”
There is little relief in sight as San Marino returns to Covina to square off with Northview, a 31-23 winner over El Rancho last week and a 2018 conqueror of the Titans.
“They are a very good team,” said Mesa. “They have excellent team speed and play a lot of defense. This will be a big challenge for us. We are going from one quality opponent to another. This is going to be a big challenge.”
He has waited patiently for the moment that will soon be upon us and barring unfortunate circumstances, San Marino High School senior Connor Short next Friday night will take his first snap as starting varsity quarterback when the Titans travel to Charter Oak for the 2019 season opener.
Oh he’s started plenty of games in the past, but last week Short was given the news many a youngster (he’s still five months shy of his 18th birthday) dreams of receiving when head Coach Justin Mesa told the lanky, 6’2” right hander that he is “the man.”
Mesa told The Tribune that naming a starting quarterback is key to the long-term success of the team as well as those who have battled for the signal-caller’s duties.
“Especially in the quarterback position, not naming a starter actually keeps everyone from moving forward,” Mesa said. “It allows the starter to develop and also lets the others know what they need to work on. I think we will all benefit.”
Short’s quarterbacking career dates back to his experience in the San Marino Community Athletics Association (SMCAA) and continued his freshman year, when he was named offensive player of the year as the Titans finished the campaign with a 7-3 mark. He had similar success—another 7-3 record—as a sophomore for the Titans’ junior varsity squad, dressed for every varsity contest and even experienced substantial playing time in relief of Blake Cabot, scoring two touchdowns in mop-up duty.
“It was real nice,” Short recalled. “Coach Hobbie would let me run it around a little bit.”
Short was backing up then-senior Kade Wentz last fall when Wentz suffered a shoulder injury on the questionable playing surface at Bell Gardens. Short started the next five games for the Titans, compiling a 4-0-1 record before handing the ball back to Wentz. Even in limited duty, Short passed for 601 yards and six touchdowns while rushing for another 422 yards—the third-highest total on the team—and five more scores.
But one of the lingering moments provided by Short last season had more to do with intangibles than statistics. When the Titans traveled to Monrovia and defeated the Wildcats for the Rio Hondo League championship with Wentz back at the quarterback spot, Short was the first to congratulate his erstwhile rival, the two sharing an enthusiastic high five.
“Kade is a really great guy,” Short said at the time. “It’s good to be competitive and it’s good to have that competitive nature when we are looking at a certain situation or a certain play, but that’s the end of it.”
In retrospect, Short said he wasn’t upset when Hobbie inserted Wentz into the starting lineup even though Short had not suffered a loss as his replacement.
“I was happy that we did well, but it was still Kade’s spot and I just wanted him to get better,” Short remembers. He said that now-retired head Coach Mike Hobbie “didn’t baby me at all.”
“[Hobbie] just said ‘Short, get in there,’” Connor recalled. “I was asked to run the same plays as Kade. There was no change in the game plan.”
Things are a little different this season as it’s Short’s position to lose, in Mesa’s parlance.
“I have wanted to be the senior varsity starting quarterback since I was playing in SMCAA,” he said. “I am very happy about this.”
So, apparently, is Mesa.
“Connor is really eager,” the rookie head coach said. “He has bought in and done everything we have asked of him. Connor is one of those guys you want as a senior to lead the program moving forward. He is a student of the game. There are still some improvements to be made, but Connor knows where the ball is supposed to go. I told him it’s his job to lose, but there is always the chance of someone else.”
The Titans are particularly deep at the quarterback position with experienced junior Andy Sutherland and hard-working sophomore Nico Mavridis nipping at Short’s heels.
After three years under quarterback-whisperer Hobbie, Short has high praise for Mesa, who most recently served as director of recruiting at the University of Wyoming.
“I really like Coach Mesa,” Short said. “I liked him from the start but I like him even more as we move on. He is knowledgeable and has a great attitude. He pushes us hard but is also very encouraging at the same time.”
Short is also an accomplished baseball player, coming off a season where he started at third base and played a little, yes, shortstop, for the Titans. The son of Melissa and Matt Short, Connor is joined on campus and in the football locker room by his younger brother Riley, a freshman, who is also on the quarterbacking depth chart at SMHS. Though graduation is months away, Connor said he wants to go to college where he can “stay warm.”
One of the toughest pre-Rio Hondo League schedules in the school’s history will try to put Short on the hot seat, but Connor is still his cool self.
“I am really excited,” he said. “It’s going to be tough, but I think we can figure it out.”