Ken Haefliger stood in the end zone at Thousand Oaks High on Friday night. He stared at the Canyon bench. His chin strap was fastened to his green helmet, the kind Thousand Oaks coaches give to outstanding defensive players. The other players wear white helmets.
Haefliger rubbed his hands together. He was ready to play.
But there was something wrong with the picture. Haefliger, a defensive tackle for Marmonte League champion Thousand Oaks, had already played. And lost, 20-9, to Canyon in the quarterfinal round of the Southern Section Coastal Conference playoffs. For the second time this season.
There he stood, wishing he could travel back in time and take one more shot at the Cowboys.
"I'm a senior," said Haefliger, adjusting the lineman's gloves he wears--as if it mattered. "This was my last chance. And this was the first time we have lost on our home field. That's the toughest thing."
It was also the first time the Lancers had lost since Canyon beat them, 26-7, earlier this season.
"We practiced hard all week," said Lancer linebacker Gus Nelinger, also a senior, who, despite the loss, strengthened his chances for selection as the Ventura County defensive player of the year. "We knew it was the last one. I just wish it didn't have to end."
It may take some time to set in, but what actually happened was the Lancers beat themselves in the first half, and Canyon beat them in the second. By the time Thousand Oaks had worked out the bugs, it was too late to repair the damage caused by two interceptions and two fumbles deep in Canyon territory.
"They were better this time," Canyon Coach Harry Welch said as he compared this victory to his team's earlier victory over Thousand Oaks this season. "They were bigger, stronger and played with a lot more confidence and enthusiasm."
As far as Lancer Coach Bob Richards was concerned, the playoff suspense ended Friday, too.
"The championship might very well have been decided tonight," Richards said.
The outcome wasn't a huge surprise. Canyon was favored. The Cowboys had the Southern Section's leading quarterback, Ken Sollom, who had passed for more than 2,500 yards and 28 touchdowns.
"He was just awesome," Lancer defensive back Derrick Tadlock said of Sollom. Every player on the Canyon team has seen defeat only once. Before this season, the Cowboys had won four straight Golden League championships.
But all was not lost for Thousand Oaks. It won its second straight league championship, and some players, most notably Nelinger, Yasenchok, and offensive guard Mike May, will most likely enjoy major college football careers. Its two running backs, juniors Marc Monestime, who rushed for more than 1,000 yards this season, and rough-and-tumble Mike Moore, who scored three touchdowns in the first playoff game against Glendale, will be back.
But until he finds another team and another field, Haefliger may be haunted by the memory of the night Canyon denied him.
"But we won two straight league championships," Haefliger said, "and not too many teams can say that."