The 2015-16 season for the El Camino Real girls’ basketball team was going to be an interesting one no matter what the outcome.
The team was pretty sure its coach Cara Blumfield would not make it through the entire season. And with good reason: Blumfield was expecting her first child. Her son, Cruz, arrived on Feb. 19 — the day of the team’s quarterfinal playoff game against Fairfax of Los Angeles.
And getting to the playoffs was its own journey. This conglomeration of Conquistadors, including several players returning from last year, could be broken into three distinct groups — the seniors, the sophomores, and the incoming freshmen. Chemistry was going to be something besides an AP college course. Who knew, at least in the beginning, if El Camino Real would be compatible or combustible.
But take a look now. The fourth seed Conquistadors (24-8) are one game away from their first City Section championship since 2011, when they won the Division II title. On Saturday, March 5, El Camino Real plays Palisades High of Pacific for the City Open Division title at Cal State Dominguez Hills. The tipoff is scheduled for 6 p.m.
Getting to the final has been a dual project for the coaches and players.
Renard Beavers, who was Blumfield’s assistant coach before being promoted to co-coach a couple of years ago, kept the Conquistadors on track to earn a share of the West Valley League with Granada Hills High, and then winning their playoff games against Fairfax and Granada Hills.
“I was the coach who stood up during the games anyway,” Beavers said. “We had been planning this for awhile, for when [Blumfield] would be gone.”
Guard Sasha Samuels, 17, a senior, said the transition from Blumfield to Beavers was easy. “Renard stepped in and took us under his wing to take the entire program to the next level,” she said. “He knows what he’s doing, and we have full confidence in him.”
The chemistry connection came over the course of the season.
Samuels hinted at less-than-successful team bonding in other years, and that she wanted her fellow seniors to be more proactive in connecting with the underclassmen.
“In past seasons there wasn’t the bond that we have now — talking with each other, hanging out with each other after practice helped a lot,” Samuels said. “We are much more close-knit.”
But forward Kyra Jacks, 16, a sophomore, admitted the younger players still needed to show the seniors they were worthy of wearing varsity jerseys.
“It was hard at first because [the seniors] already had their tier established,” Jacks said. “We had to prove ourselves to them. But they started accepting us. A big thing, like Sasha said, was outside of basketball. We talk to each other — about boys and all that fun stuff. We go out and get food together.”
Beavers said he is proud of the team unity.
“There is a blend now,” the coach said. “That has been our strength — that blend of the rotation. It took a lot of work because we struggled this year and the year before….it’s been a long process to get everyone on the same page. It took work by the coaches and the girls to all buy in.”
The Conquistadors have won their last six games. Few were tougher than the playoff semifinal against Granada Hills on Feb. 27 at Roybal Learning Center in Los Angeles. The game wasn’t decided until sophomore forward Kianna Hamilton-Fisher sank a three-pointer, breaking a 38-38 tie, with 38 seconds to play. ECR went on to win by a score of 43-38.
“I felt kinda nervous,” said Hamilton-Fisher, 15. “But we were tied…so it was stay together, stay mentally composed, stay calm. I wasn’t all that nervous because I knew [Granada Hills] was going to get another shot anyway.”
Blumfield watched the semifinal game from the team bench, albeit carefully since she is still recuperating.
“(Fairfax) was my first game I ever missed as a coach at ECR,” she said, via email. “I have been committed to this team for four years since our senior class all came in as freshmen. We preach and teach commitment and sacrifice to the team, and I am a firm believer in that.
“I knew I had to be at that game (barring no medical set backs), even if I wasn’t coaching, just to show my commitment and support to these girls. They have worked so hard all season and it was exciting to see them reach [the final], a goal they wanted to achieve so badly.”
El Camino Real hasn’t won a City title in Division I or higher since 1980. But Palisades, the bracket’s third seed, provides a formidable challenge.
The Dolphins (23-8) are a confident bunch after demoralizing and demolishing Legacy of South Gate,79-39, in the other semifinal. The Tigers had won 29 of their previous 31 games, and had beaten Palisades earlier in the season. But the Dolphins’ suffocating full-court pressure took away Legacy’s will.
The Conquistadors understand. Palisades did the same thing to them last year in a first round game, winning 64-40.
“We lost by a lot and were very frustrated by it,” Samuels said “The pressure was too much — for our guards, for me, for the entire team. We didn’t think it would be like that. We felt unprepared. But we have an idea what’s coming this time.”
“It was like we kept running into a wall,” added Jacks. “We weren’t ready, mentally. I think we’ve grown as a team since then.”
But withstanding Palisades constant pressure is not the only thing El Camino Real must do to win.
“Our defense needs to be on point. And our offense can’t be off either, or we’re going to lose,” Hamilton-Fisher said. “We have to hit shots, make layups and free throws.”
And do it together.
Also playing City girls’ championship games: North Hollywood plays Venice for the Division II title on Friday, March 4, at Roybal Learning Center in Los Angeles, 6 p.m.; and Northridge Academy plays Kennedy of Los Angeles for the Division IV championship tonight, March 3, at Roybal Learning Center in Los Angeles, 5 p.m.