The Simi Valley High basketball team is aptly nicknamed. The Pioneers are attempting to cross a parched desert where only Scorpions have previously survived.
Those Scorpions from Camarillo High are the only Valley-area team to win a basketball title in the Southern Section 4-A, 3-A or 2-A since championships were first contested in 1915. Camarillo won the 3-A title in 1972.
Simi Valley meets Muir in the Sports Arena on Saturday at 7 p.m. for the 4-A championship.
Cleveland will venture into similarly uncharted territory when it meets Crenshaw tonight at 7 p.m. in the Sports Arena for the City Section 4-A final.
Valley teams have treated the City 4-A final like that other Cleveland treats the National Basketball Assn. final. They have found numerous excuses to avoid making the trip.
Since the City split into 4-A and 3-A divisions in 1976, no Valley team reached the 4-A final until this season. Six of 10 finals in the 3-A have been won by Valley teams. Valley teams have lost 14 times in City and Southern Section finals, beginning with Van Nuys' 10-6 loss to Fillmore in 1926.
Before 1976, only two Valley teams captured City titles. Granada Hills capped an 18-0 season with a championship in 1964, and Polytechnic won it in 1961.
Poly beat Manual Arts, 52-37, behind guard Gail Goodrich, who was City Player of the Year. Granada Hills defeated Roosevelt, 71-68, despite having four starters foul out. And in 1972, Camarillo beat El Modena, 73-71, in overtime after blowing a last-minute lead.
Although Poly, with a record of 16-3, was not favored to reach the final, the Parrots had an easy time with Manual Arts. Burton said the team's dedication enabled it to over achieve.
In fact, the dedication bordered on being criminal.
"These kids were not the least bit stupid," Burton recalled. "They used a coat hanger to get into the gym when it was locked on weekends. And they made themselves a key to turn on the lights.
"It was the type of team you had to keep from working too much. They were out of their minds."
Goodrich hurt an ankle in the third quarter of the final, but returned in the fourth.
"Our football coaches in the stands were going crazy because they could tape an ankle in minutes, and this doctor was taking his sweet time," Burton said. "The next day, X-rays showed the ankle was cracked."
The game was played at Cal State L.A. with the stands full and fans lining the walls of the gym. "It was a sweatbox," Burton recalled.
Goodrich quarterbacked Poly's deliberate, patterned offense to perfection. "Gail was the greatest pressure guy you ever saw," Burton said.
"Manual Arts switched from a man-to-man into a box-and-one on Goodrich," he added, "which we had never played against. The first time they switched to the box, Gail dribbled in, dribbled back out, called time out and said 'Coach, they're in a box-and-one.'
"I thought to myself, 'What do they need me for?' "
Burton, now retired, was a disciple of John Wooden. And he was necessary, according to Al Richards, who has coached football and swimming at Poly since the school opened.
"Nellie was a disciplinarian," Richards said. "He was well-skilled in basic techniques and extremely hard-working. The team reflected those values.
"You could always tell when he was angry. His neck would get redder and redder. He's bald, and when the red line got past his ears, you knew somebody was in trouble."
Said Burton: "I spent hours and hours with John Wooden and Pete Newell. A bunch of us would get them to start talking and they'd be great. Newell was a defensive advocate and Wooden liked to talk offense. They're both man-to-man all the way. We used a lot of Wooden's warm-up drills."
Camarillo used another method to warm up for its final, according to John McMullen, who coached the Scorpion championship team and now coaches at Santa Monica College.
"I always insisted that the team keep its mind on basketball and not on girls," McMullen said. "We had a reunion in 1982, and they told me that the night before the championship game they were all out at Point Mugu, parked with their girlfriends."
The team that dated together played together.
"The beauty of the team was that we did it without major college talent," McMullen said. "It was a very cohesive unit."
Sixth man Mike Parrott was the only member of the team to go on to play professional ball--but he did it in baseball.
Camarillo, which had a 28-3 record, had won 13 games by three points or less, so the players weren't flustered when the final went into overtime.
"I remember looking at that big clock overhead with six seconds left in the game and the score tied," McMullen said. "Fred Huston, an all-CIFer, sort of panicked and shot from half court with five seconds to go. We exchanged dirty looks, then said, 'Let's get it going.' We took command in overtime."
Four thousand Camarillo fans made the trip to the Sports Arena (attendance was 9,500), and the Camarillo Chamber of Commerce sponsored a ceremony for the team the next day.
"The community spirit blew my mind," McMullen said. "It was an all-American happening. They were an intelligent bunch and had hung around together for years. That's where I see a similarity to this year's Simi Valley team.
"It's too bad everyone can't feel the satisfaction of winning it all some time in their lives. It makes you realize that goals are worth setting."
The first goal Granada Hills reached in 1964 was not the City title, according to Al Stone, the team's coach, who has retired. Stone had come to Granada Hills from Birmingham, the Highlanders' rival.
"That year in football, Birmingham beat Granada Hills, 48-0," Stone said. "So our basketball team decided we'd beat Birmingham by 48. We were leading by 48 points late in the game, but with 18 seconds left, Birmingham scored and I did a terrible thing. I called time out, we set up a play and scored in the last six seconds."
Stone's most enduring coaching memory, of course, is of the final.
"That game is indelibly inked in my mind," he said. "I've got films of the championship game and I take a peek every once in a while."
Roosevelt led by one at halftime behind center Walt Simon, but Granada Hills outscored the Rough Riders, 22-14, in the third quarter and held on despite having five players foul out, including four starters.
The Highlanders' strategy appeared to be to foul Simon, who made 22 of 32 free throws. "Actually, I told my guys not to foul," Stone said, "But we got overly aggressive under pressure."
Because of the foul trouble, unlikely heroes emerged.
"We filled in with JV players the last few minutes," Stone recalled. "It was tense time. Roosevelt crawled closer and closer. A kid from the JVs named Dan Jones had two or three rebounds and a basket for us in the last minute."
Tom Levin led Granada Hills with 22 points and had nine in the fourth quarter before he fouled out with two minutes left. Guard Vern Sorenson, the West Valley League player of the year, had 15 points for the Highlanders.
"Many times during the season, we were behind at halftime," Stone recalled. "I'd get riled up in the locker room and my players would pat me on the back and say, 'Don't worry about it coach.' Then they'd go out and do it. I never had another ballclub like that."
Neither did Burton or McMullen. But for one season, they achieved what no other Valley team has accomplished.
Simi Valley and Cleveland hope to add their names to the list.