The only sure thing in the Southern Conference playoff draw is that there is no sure thing.
Coaches say that as many as 10 teams in the 16-team pairings have a good shot at the Southern Section's most competitive conference title. This season, the Southern Conference has emerged as the toughest top to bottom, eclipsing the Big Five Conference, heretofore the section's best.
In the final Orange County Sportswriters' Assn. poll this week, five Southern Conference teams are included in the top 10. No other conference has more than three teams.
However, just when you think you have this conference figured, something unexpected happens and the playoff picture becomes muddled all the more.
Capistrano Valley, at the time it was top-ranked, lost its coach because he was suspended and had to forfeit a victory over El Toro because of a spying incident when the schools played three weeks ago. Also, Capistrano Valley lost its final South Coast League game to Mission Viejo last week, dropping the Cougars to third in the league.
Further, the conference's two non-Orange County leagues, the San Gabriel Valley and the Ocean, turned topsy-turvy in the final week of the regular season.
In the San Gabriel Valley, Lynwood was upset by Dominguez of Compton for the league title Friday. In the Ocean, league-leader Santa Monica, which had been ranked second in the conference for most of the season, lost to Hawthorne in the league's title game.
Capistrano Valley's losses, coupled with the other upsets, jumbled the playoff seedings. Santa Ana is the top-seeded team, Mission Viejo is No. 2, Los Alamitos is No. 3 and El Toro is No. 4. Neither Capistrano Valley nor Santa Monica were seeded.
"It's a wild conference," Mission Viejo Coach Bill Crow said.
John Barnes, Los Alamitos coach, split his staff Friday night, sending some to scout Cerritos in its game against Downey and others to the Hawthorne-Santa Monica game.
Those who saw Hawthorne were duly impressed with the Cougars, who beat Santa Monica, 45-20, for the Ocean League championship.
"The guys who saw Hawthorne said they have the best team they've seen (in the Southern Section) in years," Barnes said.
Quarterback Curtis Conway is one of the players who was most impressive. Conway is an agile athlete who ran the anchor leg on the Cougars' 4x100 4-A championship relay team.
"I haven't seen anybody play in the two leagues outside Orange County," Crow said. "I'm in the dark."
But Crow said it is difficult not to favor an Orange County team.
County teams have dominated the Southern Conference since the Southern Section went to the conference format in 1977. County teams have won the title every year but two. Lynwood won in 1980 and Los Altos of Hacienda Heights in 1982.
Here's a closer look at the leading contenders, in alphabetical order:
Capistrano Valley (8-2)--The Cougars spent much of the season top-ranked in the conference and in the county. However, the events of last week have thrown the Cougars into turmoil. Dick Enright has resigned in the wake of being suspended by the Capistrano Unified School District at the recommendation of the Southern Section executive committee for viewing a videotape of an El Toro practice. A number of coaches have expressed concern as to whether the team can bounce back under its new coach, Eric Patton. Quarterback Todd Marinovich is one of the nation's best passers and is a vital cog in the Cougars' high-powered offense. He became the national record-holder in career yardage last week.
El Toro (8-2)--The Chargers won the 1986 championship, going undefeated. El Toro has one of the country's best quarterbacks in Bret Johnson, who has thrown for 1,369 yards and 15 touchdowns. The Chargers were hurt by injuries during the regular season. Johnson missed several games with a knee injury; and Chris McCarthy, the Chargers' leading receiver, was sidelined with a back ailment. Both are healthy again.
Dominguez (8-2)--The Dons unseated Lynwood as the San Gabriel Valley champion, winning for the first time since joining the league in 1979. In beating Lynwood for the first time, Dominguez's defense held the Knights to 92 yards in total offense.
Hawthorne (8-1-1)--Many coaches rate the Cougars as a sleeper. If nothing else, Hawthorne has one of the conference's fastest teams. Bob Johnson, El Toro coach, said Conway reminds him of Jamelle Holieway, Oklahoma's speedy quarterback. The Cougars' impressive victory over Santa Monica raised their stock.
Los Alamitos (9-1)--The Griffins are another sleeper. They started the season with a sophomore quarterback and two untested running backs, having graduated most of last season's team and still won the Empire League title. Todd Gragnano has proved to be a capable quarterback and backs Marcus Garcia and Frank Beckton have pounded out the yardage. But the big story is the Griffin defense. Los Alamitos has allowed 27 points this season and has recorded 7 shutouts.