SACRAMENTO — The symbolism is also the reality for the Hawthorne High School track team, which passes championships from one year to another as if they were batons in a relay.
The Cougars of the 1980s have withstood the tests of time and tradition. Theirs has become a school and national record book fused from recent history, five years' worth, to be exact.
Henry Thomas and Robert Carroll, Kim Grant and Deanna Amy, Michael Marsh and Travis Hannah, Tami Stiles and Kee'sha Adams, Sean Kelly and Yke Vallery--a transition from old to new unlike any other in these parts, maybe anywhere.
Hawthorne may not always have that one Thomas-like star in the sprints--the top 100-meter time this season, a 10.51 by Robert Carroll, is the fourth-best in the state--but the relays live on. Beyond it all, the Cougars are the tag-team champions of high school track.
--Cougar teams set the current boys' outdoor national records in the 1,600 relay, 3:07.40, in 1985, and sprint medley, 3:21.15, also in '85. This season, the Cougars ran the fourth-fastest indoor mile relay ever, 3:19.2, at New Haven, Conn.
--Cougar girls set national outdoor records in the 400 relay, 45.11, in '85, and the 800 medley relay, 1:40, earlier this season at Mt. San Antonio College.
--Hawthorne has won four consecutive Southern Section and state titles in the boys' 1,600 relay, and Southern Section championships in the 400 relay in 1983 and '84.
--The Cougar girls have won four straight state titles in the 400 relay and four of the last five Southern Section titles. They finished second at the state meet in the 1,600 relay in 1985 and '86.
--Hawthorne girls also have 4 of the top 9 times and 6 of the top 24 all-time outdoors in the girls' 400 relay.
"We really don't think much about it all," said Coach Kye Courtney, who has won four state and eight Southern Section team championships in his nine years at the school.
"We try to get the kids we have now go after the records. We try not--and it's almost impossible sometimes--to bring up Henry Thomas and Sean Kelly and say something like, 'Well, this is what Henry did and this is what Sean did.' Because these kids are tremendous athletes in their own right. But they know in their own minds what the standards are."
When it comes to 1987, however, uneasy rests the crown.
With the State meet beginning here today at Sacramento City College's Hughes Stadium, the Cougars are the defending girls' team titlists and one of the favorites to reclaim the boys' trophy they lost last season to Taft of Woodland Hills but had won the three previous years. At the same time, however, they are also battered, bruised and, strange as it seems, already beaten.
The girls' 400 relay team eliminated itself a month ago in the 4-A preliminaries on a blown pass from Bresa Wallace on the second leg to Amy on the third. Both boys' teams will be without Curtis Conway, injured at the 4-A finals two weeks ago, and the 1,600 had to scramble just to reach this stage after dropping the baton on the handoff to Hannah for the anchor leg that same night, finishing fifth in the race and losing the team title to Pasadena Muir in the process.
"If Curtis was not hurt, we'd walk away with it," said Carroll, who will run the 100 and 200, besides the two relays. " . . . How many teams do you know that can run 3:13 with their best man off? None, unless it's in college."
Added Vallery, who figures to make Saturday's finals in the 300 intermediate and 110 high hurdles in addition to the relays: "Most schools, like (Pasadena) Muir, they all have fast runners, and not any of them can run a good quarter (400 meters). It doesn't make sense. (Assistant) Coach (Archie) Amy came here and said, 'You're nothing if you can't run a quarter.' "
Courtney said: "The State meet comes up, and we already had the (Southern Section) finals, but you have to ask, 'Where was Taft at the Sunkist and other meets?' The whole season can't go down the tubes based on one meet. We won the national indoor championship (at New Haven). Would you rather have that or a CIF championship?"
Hawthorne still has the best 400 relay time in the Southern Section this season, 40.91, second-best in the state to Taft's 40.88, but the Conway-less Cougars ran 41.71 in finishing fourth last week in the Masters meet. In the 1,600 relay, their 3:12.35 is the state leader, but the 3:13.48, also at the Masters, is more realistic now, with rival Inglewood Morningside their biggest challenger.
But to return home Sunday without a championship, team or relay, would be unacceptable. It would be a dropped baton of the mind, an incomplete race.
"If we had won the 4-A, we might not feel the same way now," Vallery said. "But we don't have anything yet. This is a new season."