One of the greatest football wins in Hawthorne High history almost took a tragic turn Friday night near the end of the Cougars' stunning 45-20 victory over Santa Monica.
Curtis Conway, Hawthorne's dynamic junior quarterback, was gang-tackled on the Cougar sideline and sent sprawling out of bounds.
"It's broken, it's broken," Conway cried as he grabbed his left shoulder.
Not to worry. A minute later, Conway bounced up and announced his shoulder had popped back into place. He was sore, but the only thing broken was Santa Monica's chance of gaining the No. 1 entry from the Ocean League for the CIF Southern Conference playoffs.
Hawthorne (8-1-1, 4-1) earned that honor based on a point-differential system employed by the Ocean League in the event of ties involving more than two teams. The Cougars, Santa Monica (8-1, 4-1) and Beverly Hills (8-2, 4-1) finished in a three-way deadlock for the title.
Here's how the playoff positions were determined. (Use of a calculator is recommended):
No. 1. Hawthorne's 25-point win over Santa Monica and 15-13 loss to Beverly Hills gave the Cougars a point differential of plus 23.
No. 2. Beverly Hills' 2-point win over Hawthorne and 21-12 loss to Santa Monica gave the Normans a point differential of minus 7.
No. 3. Santa Monica's 25-point loss to Hawthorne and 9-point win over Beverly Hills gave the Vikings a point differential of minus 16.
What all this means is that Hawthorne, which entered Friday's game in third place, will open the playoffs next week at home. Santa Monica, ranked No. 2 in the Southern Conference before its first loss, opens the playoffs on the road, most likely against a league champion.
Because top-ranked Capistrano Valley had to forfeit its win over El Toro and lost Friday night to Mission Viejo, Santa Monica probably would have gained the No. 1 seed for the playoffs had it beaten Hawthorne.
Santa Monica Coach Tebb Kusserow offered no excuses, however.
"Hawthorne is clearly the best team in the league," he said. "It was settled on the field."
Conway played the game with a Midas touch. Nearly every time he handled the football, it turned to gold for Hawthorne. He directed the Cougars on scoring drives on their first seven possessions, as they built a 45-14 lead early in the fourth quarter.
Conway rushed for 113 yards and four touchdowns, including a 55-yard bootleg for the game's first score, and completed 11 of 13 passes for 192 yards and 2 touchdowns to wide receiver Travis Hannah. Conway has run for 20 touchdowns and passed for 15, giving him a hand in 35 of Hawthorne's 38 TDs this season.
"He's not only the best player we've played against," Kusserow said, "he's the best player I've seen this year. He's certainly the fastest."
Included in that category is Santa Monica's own Glyn Milburn, the leading rusher in the state. Milburn rushed for 240 yards on 43 carries Friday, but most of it came in the second half after Hawthorne had a comfortable lead.
"We figured we could beat them," Conway said. "We knew they ran Glyn Milburn all the time. We had our minds set to stop him."
Hawthorne Coach Goy Casillas called it the biggest win for the Cougars since 1974, when they upset top-seeded Loyola in the CIF 4-A playoffs.
"Beating Santa Monica is one of the greatest experiences in my athletic career," said Casillas, who played for Santa Monica from 1962-64.
Asked if he ever thought the score would be that lopsided, Casillas said: "I dreamed about it."
He can stop dreaming. With a fleet-footed quarterback leading the way, the Cougars made it a reality for their first-year coach.
Carson Coach Gene Vollnogle said his team's 35-7 win over Banning at Long Beach Veterans Stadium was easier than the score indicated.
"For one thing, Banning doesn't have a complete team," he said. "They can run the ball, but a big play for them is four yards. Defensively, they have a lot of weak spots. And their special teams are not that good.
"On the other side of the coin, there are a lot of things we can do."
It added up to Carson's most lopsided win over Banning since a 28-0 shutout in 1974.
So, what's left for Carson? The Colts (8-0, 4-0) clinched the Pacific League title with one game remaining and are awaiting the start of the L.A. City 4-A playoffs in which they will be the overwhelming favorites.
Vollnogle says he has thought about a possible mythical national championship (Carson is ranked No. 3 in the country by USA Today), but he'll settle for back-to-back city titles. The Colts won two straight city crowns once before in 1971-72, when they compiled a 24-0 record over two seasons.
Banning fell to 4-4 overall and into a four-way tie for second place at 2-2. A win next week over last-place Fremont will secure a playoff spot for the Pilots, but Vollnogle doesn't think his rivals can reach the city finals for the fifth consecutive year.
"I don't think Banning can beat Kennedy or Granada Hills," he said, referring to two of the Valley League's stronger teams.