Times Staff Writer Greg Paskwietz stood poised at the free-throw line, his knees slightly bent beneath his baggy Canyon High basketball shorts.
Coaches Greg Hayes of Canyon and John Clark of Saugus, who had guided their teams to 7-2 Golden League records, stood frozen along the sideline. The frenzied fans in the Saugus gym screamed at Paskwietz as he spun the ball at his fingertips with seven seconds to play.
"Packed gym, cross-town rivalry, last game of the year and pretty good players," Hayes remembers fondly. "It was a classic."
Saugus plays at Canyon tonight in this season's closer. But little seems classic. Canyon (2-7) has struggled with an undersized team all season. Saugus (2-7) was forced to forfeit seven wins--three in league play--because it used an ineligible player.
The battle this year is for fifth place. With both coaches concluding forgettable seasons, maybe it is just as well that Hayes remembers last year's exciting finish that decided the league championship.
"I was so keyed up before the game I couldn't watch warmups," Hayes said.
Canyon built a six-point lead in the fourth quarter, only to watch Saugus shave it to 50-49 with 34 seconds to play.
The outcome was left to Paskwietz.
"Everyone was screaming and I just blocked them out of my mind and put it in the basket," said Paskwietz, a freshman at UC San Diego.
Paskwietz made five free throws--two in the final seven seconds--to give Canyon a 55-52 win that Hayes calls "one of the biggest victories in the history of the school."
The win probably doomed Canyon's playoff chances. By finishing first, the Cowboys drew Pioneer League champion Centennial in the first round and lost, 75-59.
Saugus, meanwhile, finished third and was dealt a wild-card game against Hart. The Centurions beat Hart and their next six opponents to capture their first Southern Section 3-A Division championship before losing to Woodbridge in the state playoffs.
"The kids had something to prove," Clark said. "The loss made them hungrier. You never know, things might not have turned out how they did if we won."
Said Hayes: "If someone would have said, 'If you lose this game, you'll go farther in the playoffs,' a loss would have been better. But everyone was picking us to finish third last year and by beating them for the league championship on their court we concluded our own Cinderella story.
"They, of course, then embarked on theirs."
Both coaches insist that tonight's game will not be short on intensity.
"The kids don't want to lose their last game and they don't want to lose it to Canyon," Clark said.
Said Hayes: "This is the first time in four years that we haven't gone to the playoffs. I told the kids, 'This is our playoffs.' "