The phone started ringing early Saturday morning at the Clark residence in Saugus. Well-wishers called to congratulate Coach John Clark, who the night before directed one of the biggest victories in Saugus High basketball history when the Centurions upset Katella, 69-68 in overtime, in the first round of the Southern Section 3-A playoffs.
One of the first callers of the day--and perhaps the most special for Clark--was Fran Wrage, the former Hart High coach who served as mentor for Clark more than a decade ago when Clark was his assistant. The most enduring lesson Wrage taught was the art of the upset.
"He taught me how to win the game you're not supposed to win," Clark said. "He had a magic for doing that when we were at Hart. We upset a lot of people, and there's an art to that kind of thing."
Going into Friday's game, Saugus seemed in need of magic. Katella, which was seeded second in the 3-A Division, was the Empire League champion with a 23-2 record. Katella had qualified for the playoffs for the 21st consecutive time, a Southern Section record. The Knights had never won a championship, but this was the year many expected them to do it.
Saugus reached the playoffs after losing to Canyon in the last week of the regular season in a game for the Golden League championship. Before getting a shot at Katella, Saugus was forced to play Hart, a Santa Clarita Valley rival, for the third time this season in a wild-card game.
"We were crushed after the loss to Canyon," Clark said. "Our kids were crying. And when I found out Sunday that we had to play a wild-card game, I felt like Rocky Balboa hit me right in the stomach. I was looking at the prospect of having a great season end by losing to our cross-town rivals. That would have crucified our kids."
The Centurions avoided the crucifix by beating Hart on Wednesday, 63-56, for the third time this season. Clark had little time to savor the win before preparing for Katella.
"The first lesson I learned from Wrage was to be positive, so I talked to myself a lot to get myself ready," Clark said. "We had a good practice Thursday and I kept telling the kids we could beat Katella. A coach has to do that even if you have doubts yourself.
"At a noon rally at school Friday, I promised everybody that we were going to win. I'm sure a lot of people were rolling their eyes."
On the bus ride to Katella, which is south of Disneyland about 70 miles from Saugus, Clark continued the psych job, invoking the memory of upsets past.
"When I was with Wrage at Hart we beat Pasadena in the playoffs in 1975, and that was just a shocker. Then my first year at Saugus we beat Garey of Pomona in the playoffs and people thought that never should have happened," he said.
That win served as inspiration for many of this season's seniors, including Darren Newberry, Greg Weber and Jackson Clark, the coach's son. The trio watched that game in the stands as freshmen. "I remember my kid and some other guys screaming up in the stands and going crazy at that game," Clark said.
"It was really exciting being there at that game," Newberry recalled. "Coach Clark told us that story again and how we should relive it. I think that helped us."
In the locker room before the game, Clark showed his team the movie "Rocky III," and after the Saugus players watched Mr. T get KO'd, Katella didn't seem so tough.
The Centurions stormed the court and took a 12-2 lead. They led much of the way and had the ball and a 62-56 lead with less than a minute to go in the fourth quarter. But two turnovers and two Katella baskets later, it was 62-60 with three seconds left. As Weber tried to inbound the ball under the Saugus basket, Katella's Richard Lucas stole it and slammed home the tying points at the buzzer.
"He reached over the line and took the ball away from me," Weber said. "I stared at the ref, waiting for him to blow the whistle, but he was watching the guy slam."
Weber earned redemption in overtime. Saugus led, 67-66, when Weber was fouled with seven seconds left. He made both free throws to clinch the win and prompt a spontaneous eruption on the Saugus bench when the final buzzer sounded.
The victory moved Saugus (18-9) into a second-round game against California, scheduled Tuesday at The Master's College. Before Clark started preparations for that one, he wanted a moment to hold on to Friday's victory.
"I came home and couldn't sleep, so I stayed up and watched a Dracula movie," he said. "It was a great win for the kids."
And the coach, too. "After the game, the whole team was on the floor, rolling around. And I was on the bottom."
Playing with fire: Birmingham entered the City Section 3-A playoffs as the No. 1-seeded team but nearly made a quick exit Friday. Birmingham fell behind, 8-2, made only 16 field goals, had its worst shooting game of the season (39%) and scored just two points in overtime. Still, the Braves defeated Poly, 59-57, but not before rattling the nerves of Coach Jeff Halpern.