The only way Leuzinger High's basketball team could have seen a CIF playoff game last year was to pay admission and watch from the stands.
This season, the Olympians will have a distinctively better vantage point.
Leuzinger assured itself a participating role in the CIF 3-A playoffs, which open on Feb. 19, by holding off visiting El Segundo, 51-50, in a Pioneer League game on Friday night.
Heading into the final week of the regular season, Leuzinger (16-5 overall, 7-1 in league) is tied for first place with Morningside (15-7, 7-1) and is two games up on third-place El Segundo (10-10, 5-3) with two games remaining.
Not bad for a team that brought up the rear in the South Bay last year with a 1-19 record.
"I've been mildly surprised," said second-year Coach Phil Sherman. "I'm happy for the kids who stuck in there and turned this thing around.
"We're not a team blessed with a lot of physical talent. I think we've had one dunk all season. But the kids have a good team concept. There's a lot of spirit there. We do some things well together, and that makes up for a lot of our shortcomings."
Leuzinger's shortcomings were easy to spot Friday.
Forward Keith Pullen, the Olympians' leading scorer and rebounder, sat out with a badly sprained ankle he suffered Thursday night in a non-league victory over Mary Star. Guard Roger Thomas, the team's other senior leader, aggravated a pulled hamstring muscle and missed most of the second half.
Sherman hopes Pullen, who averages 17 points and 10 rebounds, can return to action this week. He has his doubts, however.
"The doctor told him he may not play the rest of the season," he said. "He usually heals pretty quickly. We'll just have to see. We really miss a lot when he's not in there."
The injuries to Pullen and Thomas are not the first setbacks for Leuzinger. Two weeks ago, talented junior Reggie Hamilton was kicked off the team because of disciplinary reasons, Sherman said.
It's little wonder the Olympians considered themselves fortunate to beat El Segundo.
El Segundo missed several free throws in the late going and was on the bad end of two controversial calls. Guard Dave Lubs made a last-minute basket from near the three-point line that was ruled a two-pointer, and an apparent foul by a Leuzinger player was disallowed because it was ruled to have occurred after the final buzzer.
"We had a little luck on our side," Sherman said. "If not, we probably would have lost."
Leuzinger can assure itself at least a tie for the Pioneer title with wins Wednesday at Centennial (4-16, 1-7) and Friday at Redondo (9-12, 3-5).
Morningside has a more difficult schedule, having to play at El Segundo on Wednesday before returning home Friday against Centennial.
Here's a look at the other league basketball races in the South Bay:
BAY LEAGUE--Third-place Palos Verdes (14-8, 5-3) will play host to two big games this week. The Sea Kings take on second-place West Torrance (17-5, 6-2) Wednesday night and face league-leading Rolling Hills (17-5, 7-1) Friday night. Torrance (7-14, 4-4), which is a game behind Palos Verdes, also is in the hunt for one of the league's three CIF 3-A playoff spots. The Tartars play at West on Friday.
OCEAN LEAGUE--The battle here is between Hawthorne (11-9, 4-4) and Inglewood (11-10, 4-4) for the third and final CIF 4-A playoff berth. Both teams should beat Mira Costa, which means it may take an upset for the Cougars and Sentinels to avoid meeting in a third-place playoff. Hawthorne plays host to league leader Beverly Hills (21-2, 7-1) on Wednesday, and Inglewood entertains second-place Santa Monica (13-8, 6-2) on Friday.
ANGELUS LEAGUE--St. Bernard (16-7, 4-4) can pull into a third-place tie by beating St. Paul (15-3, 5-3) at home Wednesday night. But even if the Vikings lose and finish in fourth, there's a good chance they would get the at-large berth for the CIF 5-A playoffs. Wednesday night's showdown between Bishop Amat (22-2, 7-1) and Mater Dei (16-6, 7-1) at Amat will settle the title.
CAMINO REAL LEAGUE--Serra, the CIF 5-A runner-up two years ago, could miss the playoffs for the second straight season. The Cavaliers (9-11, 3-5), who are tied for fourth place with Pius X (7-13, 3-5), need wins Wednesday at home against St. Monica (13-9, 4-3) and Friday at Pius X. St. Anthony (20-4, 7-1) and Verbum Dei (10-8, 6-1) should decide the title Wednesday night at Compton College.
MARINE LEAGUE--Manual Arts (18-2, 8-0) has clinched the championship and a seeded position for the L. A. City 4-A playoffs. Second-place San Pedro (8-9, 5-3) and Carson (14-6, 4-4), tied for third, have wrapped up playoff spots in a division that grants postseason berths to 16 of 18 teams in three leagues. Banning (8-11, 2-6) is a game up on Gardena (4-14, 1-7) for the league's last guaranteed playoff spot.