Following the Yellow Brick Road : Westlake, Saugus Play for Titles

Times Staff Writer

There's nothing wrong with Westlake Village. It's just, well, small. And the community of Saugus is a fine place, too. So what if the words "Welcome to Saugus" are painted on both sides of the sign.

The boys basketball teams from Westlake High and Saugus, along with many of their fans, are going Downtown today. Sort of a Last-one-out-of-town-turn-off-the-lights type of deal. Down to the Big City for the Big Game in Big Buses. Rolling down the freeway to a place where the buildings are bigger than the trees, and where on some of the streets--get this--everyone has to drive in the same direction.

Actually, when Westlake and Saugus head to the Sports Arena for the Southern Section 4-A and 3-A championship games, it won't be exactly like Sheriff Taylor and Barney Fife taking Opie and Aunt Bea for a ride in the squad car from Mayberry to Mount Pilot. Westlake and Saugus aren't really that far removed from downtown L.A.

But then again, if you happen to see two school buses downtown on Saturday with what appears to be four bright but tiny lights shining from each window, don't fret. It's just the kids from Westlake and Saugus, sitting wide-eyed and two to a seat.

"Sure it's a big deal, the Sports Arena," Saugus Coach John Clark said. "Heck, I don't even get downtown very often. I don't get out of the Santa Clarita Valley much. I'm sure the kids on my team have been to L.A. once in their lives. But this is something they'll tell their grandchildren."

Both teams are unlikely entrants in the final round. Saugus (21-9), which finished third in the Golden League, had to play a wild-card game before entering the field of 32 teams in the 3-A. The Centurions defeated Hart, 63-56, in the wild-card game, upset second-seeded Katella in the first round, 69-68, and have not stopped surprising teams since.

Saugus, which is making its first appearance in a final since the team played in the 1-A Division in 1977, plays for the 3-A title at 2 p.m. against Rolling Hills (26-3).

Westlake's inclusion in the final round may be more surprising. Before this season, Westlake had never won a playoff game. The Warriors (20-7) placed second in the Marmonte League behind Simi Valley, which beat Westlake twice. Westlake's opponent in tonight's 7 o'clock 4-A title game is Santa Monica, which eliminated Simi Valley in the quarterfinals.

Westlake is a mecca of upper middle-class suburbia. Today's entourage will pass within a mile of L.A.'s Skid Row, but even a Main Street drive-by wouldn't hit home with these folks. The Warriors come from a land where the down-and-out live on Skid Drive. In Westlake, condominium owners are considered "homeless." A recession in a community like this forces drastic measures, like limiting Mitzy's grooming appointments at Poodle Palace to just once a week.

And Saugus is, well, rural is a nice word. A town that was ripped out of Oklahoma by a tornado and crash-landed in the California desert is probably more accurate, however.

For the boys on the two teams, playing in the Sports Arena, in L.A. , is a trip to a foreign country.

"I've been to the Sports Arena once," Saugus forward Rusty Morse said. "It was a Clippers game last year. I think I've been downtown since then. The last time I was there was, uh, I can't remember. It's been quite a while. I hardly ever get down to L.A."

Once is one more time than many of the players have been to the Sports Arena.

"I've never been inside the Sports Arena," said Westlake's 6-8 center, David Heckmann. "It's definitely part of the excitement. We already got our little passes to get in and to get out on the floor."

For many of them, playing in the Sports Arena is as momentous as playing for the championship.

"The Sports Arena is the biggest thing," Westlake guard Charlie Cangelosi said. "I've never been there. I've been to the Forum, and I figure it's something like that. You know, big.

"We've been joking about playing the Clippers."

So have the other 22 NBA teams.

Today, it will all be over for Westlake and Saugus. Except, of course, for the memories of a place far, far away.

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