If there were any lingering doubters about the quality of the baseball program at El Camino Real High, sit down and be quiet.
By defeating Cleveland, 4-3, for the City Section Division I championship at Dodger Stadium on May 30, the Conquistadors cemented their position as being one of the top prep hardball programs in the Valley — if not the state or beyond. This was the eighth City title claimed by El Camino Real. Only Chatsworth, with nine, has won more, according to City Section records dating back to 1943 [see box].
Josh Lienhard has been on hand for three of them in his seven years as head coach here. Although there was some similar team DNA — talent, dedication and camaraderie — each title team has been different. What made the 2015 team distinct in Lienhard’s mind, was its level of maturity.
“By that I mean maturity between the lines,” Lienhard said, still feeling that championship glow a day later. “We had key guys who came back this year that were now juniors. Last year was their first varsity season and playoffs. Being in that situation last year, they knew they could persevere this time.
“They were able to handle pressure in the playoffs; all the wins were by one run. They knew how to respond to pressure and the moment.”
Indeed, the Conquistadors (27-7) had an arduous road to travel despite being the top seed. They squeaked by Verdugo Hills, defending champion Birmingham and Narbonne of Harbor City by scores of 1-0, 4-3, and 3-2 to reach Dodger Stadium and find Cleveland waiting for them; the same Cleveland team ECR had defeated twice in the final week of the regular season to win the West Valley League outright.
The Cavaliers (24-12), seeded sixth, knocked off San Pedro, Granada Hills and Chatsworth to earn one last shot at El Camino Real and perhaps earn a fifth City championship for the school. But it looked bleak early, as the Conquistadors had a 4-0 lead after two innings.
Cavaliers starter Sam Villa was touched for a run in the first on singles by Dylan Hirsch and Eric Yang, and a sacrifice fly by James Terrazas. ECR added three more runs in the second — two following an error by Cavaliers second baseman Gio Cheherlian.
But the Cavaliers broke through against Conquistadors starter Jordan Berg in the top of the third. The first three hitters — Austin White, Anthony Zepeda and Villa — loaded the bases on singles. Chris Gonzalez walked to force in a run. Raudel Martinez hit into a double play, which allowed Zepeda to score, but Ben Kaser got the Cavs closer with a two-out RBI hit to center.
When Berg surrendered a one-out double to Victor Gonzalez in the fourth, Lienhard replaced him with reliever Matt Malconian.
“Berg was struggling, missing with two strikes,” said Yang, ECR’s catcher. “He’d get ahead but he wasn’t able to finish.”
Thanks in part to a leaping catch by second baseman Jake Baer on a soft liner by White, Malconian escaped further trouble in the inning. But a more ominous situation reared itself in the Cleveland sixth.
Kaiser and Anthony Rivera led off with singles, and both moved up on a sacrifice bunt by pinch-hitter Connor Oswalt. But Malconian found something extra in his spirit and grit, throwing third strikes past Victor Gonzalez and pinch-hitter Alec Vaca.
“I wasn’t going for strikeouts. I was just hitting my spots pretty well,” Malconian said afterward.
The performance was in keeping with the efforts Malconian, a senior, has given El Camino Real in 2015 as it’s number three starter and primary reliever.
“It doesn’t matter when I bring Malco in,” Lienhard said. “He’s proven time and time again he can get it done. He’s a fierce competitor and a workhorse. He’s done great all year and his first varsity experience was this year. For him to do what he did this year, I can’t say enough about him.”
“Malco did what he always does,” added Yang. “He’s been huge for us in the playoffs these past three weeks, coming in like that.”
After retiring Martinez for the final out in the seventh, Malconian — who will attend San Diego State in the fall — happily endured being swarmed by his delirious teammates and holding up the team championship trophy. He also made sure to collect some dirt from the pitchers mound as a keepsake.
“This is my favorite team [the Dodgers] … and my favorite place in the world is on that mound,” he said. “I’m sure one day I’ll tell my kids about this. Probably one of the greatest days of my life if not the greatest. It’s amazing to be out here. I’m so grateful.”
This was the 23rd straight City title won by a Valley area team. San Pedro, in 1992, was the last non-Valley team to win the championship.
Since 1943, Valley area teams have won 49 City Section baseball titles (not including Invitational or divisional titles lower than Division I). Here are the championship schools and the number of titles won
— Chatsworth (9)
— El Camino Real (8)
— Kennedy (7)
— Granada Hills (5)
— Birmingham (4)
— Cleveland (4)
— San Fernando (3)
— Monroe (3)
— Sylmar (2)
— Grant (1)
— Van Nuys (1)
— Canoga Park (1)
Source: Los Angeles City Section