Events suggested a crisis.
The Hawthorne High track team was scheduled to run in the CIF championships the next day on the way to what most observers were conceding would be a third straight state title.
But all the certainty had suddenly gone down the drain when Henry Thomas had an appendectomy the night before. Thomas holds state records in the 100-meter, 200-meter and 400-meter runs and anchors the fastest schoolboy mile relay in history. He is arguably the best prep sprinter in California history. And his sure 30 points were in the hospital.
For Coach Kye Courtney, the crisis didn't last long. He has put together too strong a program, "terrifying Southern California," as he puts it, not to know how to clear a hurdle when he sees one.
Minutes after describing the loss of Thomas as "devastating," the ex-Marine called a team meeting and told the squad in his usual straightforward manner, "This will see what we're made of. We've just got to . . . do the job. We've got to get every point we can--that one point may win the . . . meet."
Courtney held a quick practice with his relay teams to determine who would replace Thomas. The Cougars went out the next day and won their fourth straight CIF-Southern Section title. Easily.
An out-of-town writer on the Hawthorne campus that Friday was amazed at how Courtney shook off the bad news. "I can't believe it," he said. "Here the guy loses the athlete of the century, a once-in-a-lifetime kid. Most coaches would be tearing their hair out."
Courtney, a tough guy off the streets of New York, a Vietnam veteran and a track coach extraordinaire, took it in stride.
The Thomas-less Cougars will try for the state title this weekend in Sacramento, and Courtney still thinks--and plots--that his team can win.
Courtney can show an array of faces--taskmaster, caretaker, fund-raiser, father figure, profane, funny, nervous--but above all he is prepared and knows how to wring every drop of talent from his charges.
"Basically Coach Courtney is a disciplined person, a disciplinarian," said 800-meter star Sean Kelly. "I guess that's what makes us so disciplined."
Courtney has not only developed a dominant program but put together a staff of assistants that monitors the athletes--about 140 of whom will letter--both on the track and in the classroom.
Volunteer Archie Amy, who has had two daughters on the team, specializes with sprinters. Cross-country Coach Alex Bravo watches distance runners. Football Coach Larry Reed pitches in. "That's what helps, to have all these coaches. We know where they (athletes) are every minute. They can't hide," Courtney said with a split-toothed grin.
Courtney's athletes run year-round, in organized clubs over the summer, then in cross-country in the fall. Courtney finds all-comers meets and indoor meets between seasons and generally looks for the toughest competition. "My first year (1978) 180 kids came out and we got beat. But you've got to go after the good competition. It doesn't do any good to run against weak teams."
Play Football? Run Track
And how did he get so many out the first year? "I was head football coach. I said, 'You want to play football--run track.' "
Courtney found the dual load too great and opted for track. Despite his toughness, he has brought out the numbers. The program has reached such eminence that athletes move into the district to run for Hawthorne and others approach Courtney about transferring.
"Last year I turned down a state champion and two CIF champs. I won't tell you who," Courtney said.
Thanks to its huge success, the program has received about $15,000 in equipment and track improvements from the school district, including world-class alloy hurdles and polyurethane running lanes.
Every year Courtney holds a season-ending bash in which seemingly every athlete, coach, teacher, parent--almost every resident of Hawthorne--receives a trophy. This year Courtney started a newsletter for boosters and alumni. "Last year we gave out $3,800 in awards," he said.
Hawthorne has always had good athletes, but Courtney and his staff are the first to have bottled the talent and distilled it into a winning blend year after year. The track team has won so much lately that Courtney almost proudly says, "There's three programs they always look at (for improprieties): Mater Dei for basketball, Edison for football and Hawthorne in track."
'Have Their Spies Out'
Don't mention the word recruit, however. "They have their spies out. They watch for us," he said. "They write letters, 'Courtney's cheating,' but they won't sign them, the SOBs. . . . They just don't understand--the banquet, the $2,500 in hurdles . . . that's what (makes Hawthorne superior)."
Courtney said his program gets strong district backing because "there's nothing like winning. I think the superintendent likes that we address so many kids. We never kick off a kid because he's too slow or can't jump."