The winds of change started blowing on the El Camino Real High program when then Head Coach Kevin Williams announced last year he would step down after the 2014 season. Williams was a Ground-and-Pound, run-first traditionalist who favored the double wing-T, a style of play not often seen these days with the proliferation of pass-happy spread systems throughout high school football that put a premium on throwing.
The winds blew harder with the departure of 36 seniors from last year’s team, leaving Jeff Falgien — who had coached the linemen at El Camino Real for several years before accepting his first head coaching position — to pretty much start over with juniors and sophomores. And for many of the juniors, who were moving up from JV, this was their first time playing varsity football.
“We’re a very young team this year, so Kevin might have known what he was doing,” Falgien said laughing, adding that he and Williams (who still teaches at ECR) are very good friends.
The Conquistadors are not exactly trudging from Ground Zero, however.
Yes, Falgien has changed around the offense and brought in some new coaches. But El Camino Real is 2-2 so far going into its road game against Banning of Wilmington on Friday, Sept. 25. They’re gaining confidence each week in each other and how they play. Expectations for success this year may not have been high going in, especially considering that ECR resides in the always competitive East Valley League, but they’re starting to rise.
Falgien makes the point that he would not place any expectations or limitations on his team even if El Camino Real was a brand new school playing a varsity schedule for the first time.
“If you shoot too high, then everyone is let down. If you shoot too low, its ‘what, he has no confidence in his team?’” Falgien said. “It is a very fine line. And not for me and my staff, but the perception of [the players] and the belief we have in them. You want to keep encouraging them, and getting them to improve and believe in what’s possible.”
What is possible is still being defined.
The Conquistadors started slowly, with losses to La Salle High of Pasadena, and Los Angeles High. But they have since recorded consecutive victories against Kennedy and Verdugo Hills. And they’re looking more cohesive on both sides of the ball.
Linebacker and tight end Daniel Henkin, a senior, expected the defense to come along faster even though he was practically the only returning starter. And that did happen
“Not a lot has changed from last year.,” said Henkin, 17. “We still have the same coaching staff, and relative same defensive scheme. We have [many] new guys filling the positions, though.
“For me, pretty much everybody’s a new face. We’re still getting to where we can execute a little better. But we’re getting that done. … ‘I really think it started clicking last game (against Verdugo Hills). There was a little bit of it against Kennedy, but there were still some slip-ups. Last week was a good preview of what our defense is capable of.”
Center Justin Garcia, 17, a senior, said the offense actually has been evolving even before Williams stepped down. “We have progressed since my freshman year. Before we ran the double wing-T the first two years. Last year we started to open up a little more, run a little more zone. This year is more of a spread look.”
It’s quarterback Wes Crockett who holds the key to how far the offense expands — at least for the moment.
Crockett, 17, a junior, transferred to ECR from St. Bonaventure of Ventura. He sat out the first two games, waiting to have his transfer approved by City Section officials. Along with having a strong arm, he gives the Conquistadors an elusive presence on the field
“And he’s got a good head,” Falgien said of Crockett. “He can scramble and be mobile, but if he sees someone open, he’s not selfish to just run it. He’ll throw the ball to the open receiver.”
Crockett said he feels comfortable with, and knowledgeable about, the playbook.
“At the quarterback position you have to adjust to any playbook every year,” he said. “But this one was quick to learn. The majority is the same formations I played at my old school. They had six basic formations, and here there are 3-4. If there are less formations, it’s easier to pick up.”
The game against Banning (3-1), which is coming off a lopsided 47-6 victory against Hawthorne, comes at the right time for El Camino Real. The Pilots play in the Marine League, long considered the toughest league in City football, and the Conquistadors can expect a physical, grind-it-out kind of game much like they will face in the West Valley.
The Banning game should also give ECR an accurate barometer of where the program currently stands in conjunction with other City Division I teams. And no matter the outcome, the Conquistadors will have a bye week to rest and get ready to league play.
But if the Conquistadors go into Wilmington and come out with a victory, it would serve notice to the West Valley that this “new” team will contend for a championship.
The players seem eager to prove their worth.
“Before the season I was very optimistic. You have to be,” Garcia said. “But now I’m even more optimistic. I know we have talent, and it’s just a matter of utilizing it.”
“I think this ElCo team can [go] far,” adds Crockett. “We all have a good understanding of what we need to do to get the job done. If we all gel and play to our ability, I believe everyone will have a great season.”