Everyone knew when Chris Ferragamo left Banning High it was the end of an era. But he hardly left the cupboard bare, and new Coach John Hazelton came aboard to expectations that it was the dawn of a new era.
Instead, Banning's 3-3 start was more like Dawn of the Dead. The team constantly looked flat at the start of games, there were morale problems, boosters were grumbling about the Pilots' apparent lack of firepower and things hit bottom when the Pilots lost a league game last week to an average Crenshaw team.
So after an emotional week, Hazelton was understandably elated Friday night when his team began what he calls "our second season" with a 33-6 victory over highly rated Gardena. Banning scored on its first four possessions, took a 27-0 half-time lead and had a shutout until the last three minutes of the game.
Hazelton, eyes shining after the game, accepted congratulations and told a friend: "Finally, we're back." Then he told reporters, "That's a Banning team you saw. It's been a long search for 20 kids who'd never played a varsity down and a coach who didn't know any of our kids. The kids knew the importance of this game after dropping one to Crenshaw."
The victory raised Banning's Pacific League record to 2-1 and put them in position to challenge rival Carson (3-0) for first place when they meet next Saturday. The Pilots are 4-3 overall. Carson has breezed to a 7-0 record but played a lackluster game Friday in beating Dorsey, 28-13.
"This is where we belong before a Carson game," Hazelton said.
The Pilots drove 61 yards for a touchdown to open the game, and when Gardena fumbled the ensuing kickoff Banning recovered and scored again. With tailback Chris Griffieth running for more than 100 yards, fullback Charlie Clark pounding for inside yardage and sophomore quarterback John Maae looking more assured, the Pilots controlled play and ate up large chunks of the clock. It was the first time this season they jumped out to a large lead. Hazelton said it was the first time they were fired up at the start. Despite the big half-time lead, Hazelton said the message he wrote on the board during the break was "Killer Instinct."
Although the Pilots only scored once in the second half--Keith Mims' 39-yard burst up the middle in the final minute--Hazelton said they continued to play with spirit, the result of two days of emotional soul-searching by the staff and players after the Crenshaw game.
Hazelton said the Crenshaw loss may have been "worth it for the effect . . . it could be a turning point for a bunch of these kids, and maybe in my career."
"The team met for four hours Sunday and talked about everything that's been missing," he said. "Monday we did not practice a down. We met again and got everything out, players and coaches. We talked about the pressure, Chris leaving. When we came out of the room the real Pilots were back."
And just in time for Carson. Hazelton now talks about playing five more games--two remaining league games and three playoff games. Banning would reach the finals by playing 12 games.
"Everybody knows what the first Carson game means," he said. "It means 'See you again' " in the city finals.
As inspiring as the victory was for Banning, the loss may have been nearly as deflating for Gardena. The Mohicans, who had hoped to challenge Carson and Banning for the league title, were blasted last week by Carson, 41-0, and lost their best player, Damon Mack, with a dislocated shoulder. After the Banning game, Coach Dale Hirayama was bemoaning his team's apparent lack of spirit.
The loss dropped Gardena to 1-2 in the league with two presumably weaker opponents--Dorsey and Fremont--left. But it remains to be seen if the Mohicans will bounce back. Gardena has not beaten either of the South Bay's Big Two since the mid-1970s.
When Southern Section league play began, nobody, including the staunchest North Torrance fans, would have predicted that the Saxons would be holding a game lead over South Torrance and Palos Verdes going into the last week of the regular season. But that's the situation in the Bay League, where North High is in the driver's seat at 4-0 after going 1-4 in pre-league games.
"Things were a little dismal. We were a little beat up," Coach Don Bohannon said of his team's slow start. However, North Torrance had played a strong schedule ("That actually may have helped us," Bohannon said), and now quarterback Jim Henderson has returned from an injury and running back Anthony Anetema has established himself as one of the stars of the league.
Meanwhile, the defense "has been nails," Bohannon said. The Saxons recorded their third shutout in four league games Friday, a sloppy 9-0 victory over Torrance, to set up this week's showdown for the league title at South High (3-1).
If South wins and Palos Verdes, also 3-1, beats Rolling Hills, the league would finish in a three-way tie, a replay of 1986.