There can be championships, like the ones El Camino Real and Sylmar won in boys’ basketball back in March, that almost beg for an extended victory lap.
The Conquistadors won their first City Division I title by besting Westchester of Los Angeles. The Spartans won Division II over Garfield of Los Angeles, for its first title since 1998.
A glorious moment for both schools.
But time is never frozen, not even in winter. Both ECR and Sylmar are back and suited up to try and win again. The goal is the same, the challenge is different. The outcome cannot be yet discerned, not until next March.
For both coaches, the opening third of the 2014-15 season has been a period of both discovery and a final shedding of last season’s achievements. Both have had to reshuffle lineups and rotations in the search for the keys and combinations that give the Conquistadors and Spartans their best chance at defending their respective titles. There is little time left to experiment: league play will begin (or in Sylmar’s case, resume) following the holiday break, and teams cannot continue to give games away in a search for what works — at least not those who plan to contend.
At Sylmar, Coach Bort Escoto is adjusting to not having his big men of last season, 6-8 Devenir Duruisseau, and Malcolm Wadlow and Chance Cole, both 6-4. The trio did an excellent job of rebounding, finishing fast breaks and closing down any penetration of lanes toward the basket. All three graduated, and the holes left in the Spartans’ team — off to a 4-6 start going into this week’s holiday tournament in Alhambra — were sizable.
“It took them four games to figure they are not rebounding, and another four games to realize they had to play defense,” Escoto said about his current squad. “We didn’t play as well as I expected. I thought we’d be a little better.
“I realized I have to do more coaching. Last year, (senior guard) Ruben Gonzalez called the plays. I have to be more involved with this group. It has been frustrating; some of it is my own because I don’t have kids I had last year to lean on. I have to be more patient.”
An infusion of talent came in once the Sylmar football team finished it’s playoff run. Those players — including guard Clarence Williams Jr., who was a reserve on last year’s basketball team and this season is a starter — have not necessarily added height, but instead given the Spartans more depth and athleticism. That showed in the Valley Mission League victories against Canoga Park and Van Nuys.
“Now we are where I thought we would be,” Escoto said.
On the other hand, ECR Coach Joe Wyatt might be allowed to be more surprised at his team’s 5-3 start (including a win against Westchester in an early rematch), considering the Conquistadors were trying to replace nine departing seniors with a group that in Wyatt’s words is “a team of guards,” even if three of them — Brandon Russell (son of former NBA player Bryon Russell), Chris Terry and Josiah Woods — are among the City’s best.
Like Sylmar, El Camino Real has a shortage of height; no player on the roster stands taller than 6-3. But Wyatt isn’t, er, “shrinking” from the potential quandary. Nor is he allowing the players to consider the 2014-15 season as one of starting from scratch.
“I did not see this as a ‘rebuilding’ year. I don’t believe in rebuilding,” Wyatt said as the team was practicing for its Dec. 26 game against Bellarmine-Jefferson of Burbank. “I think these [new] guys can come in and play just as hard. If they’re willing to work hard, they will get better.”
He said he was pleased the team had reached the semifinals in both of its early tournaments. The only glaring weakness so far has been rebounding.
“In all three losses we were outrebounded. But we’re scrappy, we can shoot, we press and try to take teams out of their rhythm. If I had a couple of big guys, we might be undefeated,” Wyatt said.
“The fun for me is, I like being the underdog and having the team nobody is talking about. This is a challenge to get them where they have never been. A lot of these guys have not had the variety experience.”
Both men expect ECR and Sylmar to be factors in their league races. The Conquistadors’ biggest challenge in the West Valley figures to be Taft, which looks rejuvenated after last season’s ho-hum 12-16 mark. In the Valley Mission, Kennedy was also off to a slow start at 2-5, but both of those wins were league wins against Reseda and San Fernando.
Winning league is old hat to Escoto, now in his 20th season. The Spartans have won 16 league titles during his watch.
“But every year is different,” he said. “I actually thought at the beginning Van Nuys or Kennedy would be the favorite. We will try to defend the title, we won’t just hand it over. That’s why I don’t care as much about tournament results; for us it’s about everyone learning to play and meshing together, and getting the mistakes out of our system.”
“We are still good,” Wyatt said of El Camino Real. “I think we will be right there. I’m sure everyone is picking Taft. We want to continue what we need to do. …. We haven’t gelled yet. We can be better at rebounding, at making the extra pass — when we do that we will be dangerous.”
Wyatt also reiterated the folly of underestimating the Conquistadors now, or even next March.
“Nobody thought we would be what our record is now,” he said.