On Wednesday of the eighth week of the season, John Hazelton, the football coach at Banning High School in Wilmington, was, at last, feeling good.
"Spirits are very high," the Pilots' first-year coach said. "We finally played a game last week."
Actually, Banning has played seven games in 1987. It's just that until Week 7, the Pilots never seemed to be playing in them. That's the kind of start it was for the Pilots, normally a City power but this season an also-ran, a team that spent six weeks making like a limbo bar: How low can you go?
In Week 6, they found out.
A 20-14 loss to Crenshaw, which was 1-4 going in, was the last straw, the bottom of the barrel, the ultimate nose dive for the Pilots. Not only did they lose to Crenshaw, a big enough shock in itself, but had a fumble, four interceptions, little enthusiasm and less discipline in the process. A season of problems encapsulated in one game.
The cries came from all over: This never would have happened if Chris Ferragamo was still coach.
The meaning was clear. People thought Hazelton had trashed a program that Ferragamo had built into one of the best in the country before leaving for Harbor College.
Hazelton heard the talk. He felt it, too.
"Right away . . . there was a lot of soul-searching," he said.
It led to a pair of meetings, one a players-only get-together the Sunday after the Crenshaw game and another including coaches the day after that. Problems were discussed and feelings were aired, everything from jealousy to the fear of being the first Banning team in 17 years to play without Ferragamo and of the players trying to protect Hazelton from the pressures.
That taken care of, the Pilots played their best game of the season last week in beating Gardena, 33-6.
If nothing else, Banning, now 4-3, has good timing. It apparently put things together just in time for its annual grudge game with Carson, No. 1 in the City with a 7-0 record. The Pacific League game tonight at 8 at Veterans Stadium in Long Beach could be the most lopsided in years or, if the third-ranked Pilots keep it close, very surprising.
No matter, Hazelton said, Banning has come a long way.
"The guys wanted to succeed without Chris so bad that they were trying too hard," he said. "They were too tight.
"We struggled against all the teams. We could have been 6-0, but we easily could have been 0-6.
"We haven't had a normal week yet. But the first six weeks are such a distant memory now. Last week, it seemed like we were able to free the negatives everyone, coaches and players alike, had. There were a lot of bad feelings."
Hazelton's feelings on a personal level matched that of his team. So does the recent upswing of moods.
"This was a bigger program than I've ever been in charge of, and it was every problem magnified," the former coach at Montclair Prep in Van Nuys said. "Most people think you can line up a Banning team and that they will just go out and get the job done. Obviously, that's not true.
"The pressure of replacing Chris was never on me. It's the feeling I wanted. I wanted the pressure of Banning football."
He seems to have gotten just what he asked for.
The Carson-Banning game is the only one in the City involving two ranked teams, but the Southern Section has two: No. 14 Canyon of Canyon Country (7-2) playing at No. 8 Palmdale (8-1) for the Golden League title, and No. 11 Mission Viejo (8-1) at No. 3 Capistrano Valley of Mission Viejo (8-1) for the South Coast League championship. Capistrano Valley's one loss was a forfeit.
Todd Marinovich, the Capistrano Valley quarterback, needs 191 yards to pass Ron Cuccia, the former L.A. Wilson star, and become the nation's all-time total yardage leader. Cuccia's record of 8,804 was set in 1975-77.
Canyon, a team that lost two of its first three games, is playing for the title in one of the toughest leagues in Southern California. But the Cowboys earned it by beating a good Antelope Valley team last week. Palmdale's only loss was to Encino Crespi, one of the top Big Five teams.
Playoffs will begin today for the eight-man championship, with the top-seeded teams being Rio Hondo Prep of Arcadia (8-0) in the large division and Coast Christian of Redondo Beach (9-0) in the small division.
The Southern Section 11-man pairings will be announced Sunday. The City has two weeks left in the regular season.