It’s Monday, May 9, the beginning of a long week for El Camino Real. The defending City Section Division I baseball champions must wait eight days before trying to win back-to-back titles. The Conquistadors next take the field on May 17, hosting the winner of the Sylmar-San Pedro play-in game.
Teams typically don’t like that much time off for fear of getting out of their rhythm, then playing a team that’s already got one playoff win under its belt.
But ECR doesn’t mind an opportunity to catch its collective breath.
Its 24-7 record was earned through several means, including surviving an early string of injuries to the ongoing mental strain defending champions undergo of having every opponent taking dead aim at them the following year.
There’s another serious malady that can creep up on a team — complacency. The feeling that, by having won it all the year before, you know what it takes to win it again and can turn on the necessary intensity and drive whenever you need to. Even though every season is different. Even when other teams may have gotten better. Even when a one-and-done playoff format, like the one City Section uses, is a crapshoot. One bad call, one play, one bad day, can wipe out all hopes and goals.
Coach Josh Lienhard thought he might be seeing some signs of complacency beginning to infect his team.
“We’ve had a lot of that down the stretch, primarily in league play,” Lienhard said. “There’s been a bunch of games where we just rolled into the park thinking we’ll just let our talent take over, and we’ve caught the wrong end of that stick a couple of times.
“Hopefully that was a bite in the rear end to get these guys going. I know we have eight days until we play again. The layoff might be good for these guys, might give them a ‘new season,’ so to speak.”
The worst example of what Lienhard was describing was the May 5 game against West Valley League rival Cleveland. A couple of days before, the Conquistadors had blown out the Cavaliers, 13-0. But in the second meeting, ECR committed five errors en route to a 5-2 loss.
Instead of winning the West Valley outright, El Camino Real finished in a first place tie with Chatsworth. The Chancellors won the coin flip to determine the league’s top team for playoff seeding, and wound up being the bracket’s top seed.
The players say they learned a valuable lesson.
“Sometimes we’ve had the mentality that we think we’ll automatically win and it backfired on us,” said catcher Eric Yang, 18, a senior. “We can’t go into the playoffs with that mentality.
“We had a little more momentum going into the playoffs last year. We thought the weeklong break would hurt us because we felt so much momentum. But this year it will be good for us, get our minds right.”
Top pitcher Jeremy Polon agrees. He thinks the Conquistadors have a better understanding of how to focus on the playoffs, having gone through it last season.
“The goal here is to win a championship, and you do that with hard work and playing good baseball,” said Polon, 18, a senior. “And the second year is harder than the first year, because everyone wants to beat you that much more. Every team throws their best guys against us. But it’s fun, to get that experience … it does keep us locked in, and makes us better.”
Being a repeat champion is special. According to City Section records that date back to 1943 only five teams have won consecutive Division I or 4A championships.
Fremont of Los Angeles was the first to do it, winning three straight titles from 1946-48. Since then four Valley-area schools have turned the trick. Granada Hills in 1975-76 and 1978-79; El Camino Real in 1993-94; Kennedy in 1995-96; El Camino again in 1997-98; Chatsworth in 2003-04; and Chatsworth again in 2007-08-09.
“The ‘body of work’ was fantastic,” Lienhard said, in reviewing the 2016 regular season. Highlights included winning the San Diego Lions Classic Tournament, going 2-2 in the Boras Baseball Classic tournament (beating South Hills of West Covina and Temecula Great Oak of Temecula, while losing to JSerra of San Juan Capistrano — ranked second in the state by maxpreps.com — and J.W. North of Riverside), and reaching the semifinals of the Easton Tournament by beating Valencia and Camarillo before losing to Harvard-Westlake.
The Conquistadors were also 4-2 in their nonleague City games, defeating Poly, San Fernando, San Pedro and Verdugo Hills, but losing to Kennedy and Narbonne of Harbor City.
“Even though we returned a lot of players it was kind of a new team,” Lienhard continued. “We lost four seniors but added eight newcomers, 22 guys total. There was some blending. But there was a lot of leadership, a lot of guys from last year. Hopefully the experience of those guys comes through.
“But now is that time of year when a team needs to do everything right, and get a little luck, to win it all. Getting to Dodger Stadium and winning was incredible,” Polon said. “It’s just such a special feeling. You can’t really explain it. There’s the night before, the bus ride there. I’d die to have that feeling again. But you can’t talk about that game. You have to focus on the first game coming up. You’ve got to make it to Dodger Stadium first.”
Yang calls the Conquistadors “an extremely talented team” that will be ready on May 17.
“We have a lot of returners and we have the same common goal. We want that [championship] feeling again,” he said.
“We all know everyone wants it so we haven’t talked about it much. [But] it’s everyone’s goal.”