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Prep basketball: 25 years and only 1

Saugus is still the only local boys team to win a CIF championship

Posted: March 10, 2012 1:55 a.m.
Updated: March 10, 2012 1:55 a.m.

The CIF-Southern Section Division 3-A championship plaque stands next to former Saugus head coach John Clark’s team picture of the 1987 Saugus High boys basketball team. Clark’s team was a wild card entrant into the tournament and ended up winning the Division 3-A title.

 


The pamphlet says it all. “Saugus Basketball, 1987 CIF Champions, 25th anniversary.”

Today, members of that squad will reunite at the Hyatt Regency Valencia in celebration of their CIF-Southern Section Division 3-A title.

It wasn’t the biggest team. It also wasn’t the smallest. It was a group of supremely dedicated basketball players guided by a common goal.

The team came together after countless hours of work in the gym, and countless more hours spent together off the court. It wasn’t put together through transfers or travel ball players.

“They had played together for years,” says former Saugus head coach John Clark. “They had played together since they were 5, 6 years old. They stole each other’s girlfriends. They fought each other. They hugged each other. That’s probably a good reason why you might win a lot of games, to be able to pull together in adversity.”

This team did that, going from a wild-card berth to a CIF championship, knocking off the top two seeds in the division along the way.

To this day, the CIF championship is unique to Santa Clarita Valley boys basketball. The pamphlet says something else.
“Still the only one.”

“I’m a little bit surprised that somebody else hasn’t won it, because of the number of years,” Clark says. “I would certainly not be pulling against anybody … It was important in 1987, because it had never happened before, but the fact is we wait another 25 years? What it does is just makes 1987 more unbelievable.”

***

Another thing that’s unbelievable is what happened to Saugus during the final week of the regular season in 1987.

The Centurions were 7-1 in the Golden League, with games against Quartz Hill and Canyon yet to play.

The starting five of Jeff Dorst, Rusty Morse, Darren Newberry, John Thomas and Greg Weber was clicking. The bench was contributing. The goal of winning the Golden League was in their sights.

And then, they lost the last two league games.

“I remember guys being in tears in the locker room, knowing they’d set that goal and lost,” says Jeff Hallman, who was an assistant coach before becoming the head coach for 14 seasons.

It seemed out of character for the team. Earlier in the season, Saugus had snapped Burroughs of Ridgecrest’s six-year, 40-game home winning streak. It had played a brutal pre-league schedule chock full of Southern California powers.

Quartz Hill and especially Canyon had good teams in their own right, but good enough to beat a team that would eventually win a CIF championship?

Unbelievable. And as it turns out, necessary.

“I have come to the conclusion that if we would have won league, we never would have won the CIF,” Clark says.
“Never. We needed that wake-up call. We needed that to get an edge back into our team.”

Thanks to its head-scratching finish, Saugus had to dispatch rival Hart 63-56 in a wild-card game just to make the final 32-team field in Division 3-A.

The next round is when the playoff run really took off. The Centurions made the hour-and-a-half trip down to Anaheim to take on a talented — and perhaps overconfident — Katella High squad.

“People were looking at us as a wild-card team,” Morse says, “and we weren’t.”

Saugus outlasted Katella 69-68 in overtime, putting the rest of the division on notice.

“After that, people are scouting and they’re watching,” Hallman says. “Every coach is saying, ‘You can’t take these guys lightly.’”

It didn’t matter how opponents were taking the Centurions the rest of the way. The Centurions were too busy taking them out.

First, Saugus beat California High 67-63. In the quarterfinals, Saugus beat Tustin 59-56. In the semifinals, Saugus beat Palos Verdes 45-41.

No one could exceed Saugus’ effort and execution. By the time the championship game arrived on March 7, 1987, taking down top-seeded Rolling Hills didn’t seem like such a tall task.

“Everybody played so well for us,” Morse says. “It just seemed like the floor was bigger. I don’t think the dimensions of the L.A. Sports Arena floor are bigger, but it seemed like they were.”

Saugus had become a big story back in Santa Clarita. A group of Saugus students provided the team with raucous support at each playoff game, but it was more than that.

“It became more than just a school thing,” Clark says. “It was more of a community thing.”

And to this date, that community still has only one CIF title to its name.

***

Historically, the Santa Clarita Valley is not a basketball hotbed. Not like in other sports.

It could be argued that football is the valley’s signature sport. Or baseball. Or even track and field and cross country.

Those sports have the CIF titles and college/professional athletes to back up their claim.

That doesn’t mean the valley has been barren of basketball talent. But talent is only part of the equation.

“What you go through in a season, lots of teams do that,” Hallman says. “But only one team in the division can translate that into a championship. Sometimes you become a champion, but you can always work like one.”

The fact is, there are several elements of Saugus’ championship run that the next CIF champion from the valley will likely share.

A supreme work ethic is one of them. While there’s talent in the area, nobody will argue that the talent level is as high as other areas of Southern California.

Therefore, it’s vital that local teams maximize their abilities. One of the ways to do so is through conditioning.

“For us, a tough game was almost a break, because we’d typically go three and a half hours (in practice) on off days,” Morse says. “We’d get in these games, and it just paid off greatly.”

Another strength of Saugus’ CIF championship team was coaching. The Centurions’ ability to break through press defenses and hit shots proved critical during the playoff run.

Clark says there are good coaches in the Santa Clarita Valley. Recently, the coaches have had a wealth of talent to work with.

Up until 2010, only two players, Hart’s Ali Peek and Canyon’s Cody Anderson, had accepted NCAA Division I scholarships straight out of high school. Over the past two years, Valencia’s Lonnie Jackson became the first area player to accept a scholarship to an Atlantic Coast Conference school when he committed to Boston College, and Golden Valley’s Trevor Wiseman accepted a scholarship to Hawaii.

One of Wiseman’s high school teammates, Maverick Ahanmisi, spent a year at prep school and then accepted a scholarship to Minnesota. Another former teammate, Steven Thornton, played at Utah State before leaving the program this past November.

A current local player, West Ranch junior Ako Kaluna, is widely considered to be the next Division I basketball player from the area.

But again, talent is only part of the equation.

“There’s a lot of different ways to skin a cat,” Hallman says. “What it comes down to, to win the whole thing you have to be good, you have to work hard and you have to be lucky as well.”

And still, there are outside influences that contribute to winning a CIF title — influences that, Clark says, may have prevented teams from duplicating Saugus’ feat.

“In another way, I’m not surprised that no one’s won it,” he says, “because Santa Clarita high school basketball ain’t what it used to be.”

***

Since Saugus won the CIF title in 1987, three new major high schools have opened in the Santa Clarita Valley.

The ensuing talent dispersal has affected plenty of sports. Boys basketball is no different.

“Because we have a lot of schools in the valley, it’s hard to have a power team,” Hallman says.

It’s also hard when some of the area’s best players leave the valley to play elsewhere. It’s happened before, and it will no doubt continue to happen.

It didn’t happen to Saugus’ 1987 team.

“Back then, we didn’t have transfers happening,” Morse says. “The guys that grew up in the schools, those were the guys you had.”

Clark has some very strong opinions on the talent pool in the area, no matter how it comes about.

“I’d say that we have real average athletes in this valley, and I’m sure that wouldn’t be a popular thing for people to hear,” he says. “But they’re really good when they’re playing against each other. They play hard when they’re playing against each other. They play well when they’re playing against each other. But they play against each other. When they’ve got to go out and take on people outside (of the valley), it changes.”

Clark’s point speaks to his belief that the localization of the Foothill League has hurt boys basketball in the area. When Saugus played in 1987, it traveled as far as Ventura and the Antelope Valley just to play league games. Clark says the team was not only exposed to good competition, but also tough environments and different types of officiating.

There’s another issue in Clark’s eyes — the emergence of AAU and travel ball teams.

“These travel ball teams are just not well-coached, and also what’s happening at the same time is the (high school) head coach has fewer and fewer minutes with his team,” Clark says. “Chad Phillips at Canyon, and (Tom) Kelly at Hart, those guys are great coaches. You’re telling me that some guy on travel ball is going to be better at teaching these kids?”

Clark says his assistant coaches on the 1987 team – Hallman, Eric Olsson, Claude Heavens and freshman coach Dan Fapp — had their own styles but still ultimately sent the same messages he did.

And Clark sent his messages firmly.

“The players have to respect the coach,” Morse says. “Sometimes, you don’t see that now. Coach Clark, he was tough.

He was a disciplinarian. He didn’t mess around. He had total control of the team, and you don’t always see that now.”

Clark points to increased pressure from school administrations.

“I think some coaches are a little bit reluctant to lay down the law,” Clark says. “They’re thinking, ‘I don’t want to be in the principal’s office tomorrow, explaining why I chewed this kid out.’ So he doesn’t chew him out.

“I guess what I’m saying is, if you want to have a great team, you’ve got to be a little bit of a tough guy. Now you can have a good team with good players and not be a tough guy. But you can’t have a great team without being a hardass.”

Clark references former Canyon head football coach Harry Welch in that regard. Welch won five CIF-Southern Section championships and the 2006 Division I state championship with Canyon.

But despite all that’s changed over the past two decades, Clark remains optimistic.

Does he think there’s another CIF boys basketball championship in the Santa Clarita Valley’s near future?

“Yeah, I do,” Clark says. “I do. But I think it’s going to take good players, and a hell of a coaching staff, and an administration and faculty that is willing to really push.”

***

There have been two CIF-Southern Section championship game finalists in local boys basketball history. There have six CIF semifinalists. There have been 18 CIF quarterfinalists.

But the only CIF champion the area has ever produced will reunite today for its 25th anniversary.

Saugus was more than just its starting five. It was Vladimir Bilik and Jackson Clark, John’s son who passed away in 1991 due to intestinal cancer.

It was a couple of names still fresh in the minds of local sports fans, former West Ranch head boys basketball coach Sean Legeaux and current Valencia head baseball coach Jared Snyder. There was Jeff Blackledge, Rick Bilek, Gene Duggan, Andy Regenberg and Wayne Cass.

Together, they won the Division 3-A championship in 1987. Then, they beat Oceanside High — which featured future USC and NFL linebacker Junior Seau — in the first round of the Division I state tournament.

They ultimately fell to Woodbridge, which featured future Stanford star and NBA lottery pick Adam Keefe, and finished 23-10.

“I remember that everybody contributed,” Clark says. “We had 10 guys on the varsity when the season ended, and I brought up four guys from the JV. Everybody was contributing. When you play that many playoff games and they’re so close, every little contribution becomes significant.”

The men responsible for those contributions will spend today honoring the past.

It remains to be seen if another area team can join their club in the future.

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