Football practice in the summer sun goes beyond getting conditioned to give or take hits, developing chemistry with teammates and meshing individual talents into a cohesive team. It’s also about renewing optimism; that you will be rewarded for lifting all those weights, attending meetings, studying the playbook, and fearlessly facing and overcoming an opponent who could be better than you.
El Camino Real is currently toiling under the July sun with the feeling — the belief — it should be optimistic about its football fortunes in 2016.
The Conquistadors are coming off a 5-6 overall record, a third place finish in the West Valley League (for the third straight year), and an opening round loss to Garfield of Los Angeles in the City Section Division I playoffs in 2015.
But they were playing under a new head coach (Jeff Falgien, the former line coach, who was promoted after Kevin Williams stepped down), a new coaching staff and a new system with basically a new team after 36 seniors finished their careers the year before.
There are still more juniors and sophomores on the roster than seniors. Some might argue the Conquistadors are still a year away. But none of those arguments are coming out of ECR — not with an estimated 75 percent of last year’s roster returning.
“I’m not one for making predictions,” Falgien said. “But I believe, based on the athletes we have and the solid depth, we should be able to give it a run for the money. I think we were in a few plays last year of getting really close. I think (the players) are starting to believe it.”
Yes they are.
“I feel we’re getting stronger,” said defensive back Tyjai Fulford, 16, a junior. “We have a pretty nice team this year. If we continue to work hard, we’ll be all right.”
“I’m very confident with our team this year,’’ added running back Ladell Atkins, 17 a senior. “I believe we can go far. We’re tired of the other sports (at El Camino Real) winning and sporting jewelry around here.”
Both Fulford and Atkins are critical components to the kind of success the Conquistadors are striving for. Fulford — who will also be used this season at wide receiver — intercepted nine passes on defense last season, which earned him second team All-City Division I recognition. “I don’t think he’ll be challenged as much this year,” Falgien said. And Atkins ran for 1,460 yards and 15 touchdowns on 114 carries. Noted Falgien, “He’s quick. He’ll make you miss, and then you can’t catch him.”
But just as important — if not more so — would be the continued development of Wesley Crockett at quarterback. He played in eight games, throwing for 538 yards and six touchdowns. But he completed only 25 of 62 pass attempts and was intercepted seven times, all while learning the offense on the fly. He’s coming back “stronger, faster and more mature,” according to Falgien.
“Personally, I have to make the biggest improvement on the field,” said Crockett, 17 a senior. “My checks at the line have to be better. But everything is good, because I feel I have the talent to be successful. And I’m more comfortable in the system.”
So is everyone else playing at El Camino Real this season, Crockett added.
“What will be better this year is learning from our mistakes,” he said. “If the defense is blitzing, go with a quick pass. If they’re stacking [the middle of the line], you want to run outside. We made a lot of mistakes with our run game last year, but now we’re gonna open up the field and the pass offense. When the offense becomes second nature, when everyone’s on the same tempo and page, we can all work as one unit.”
That doesn’t mean the Conquistadors don’t have potential road blocks. Both offensive and defensive lines are young. They’re also a bit undersized, no longer being the punishing blockers they once were when ECR employed the double wing-T offense.
“We’ve always had some girth-y, big kids. But that well has kind of dried up,” Falgien said. “So we better be better in all the other elements of that position. We have to work really hard at technique and footwork.”
ECR also has to survive a rigorous nonleague schedule that begins with La Salle of Pasadena on Aug. 26, and includes Venice, Agoura, Harvard-Westlake, and Calabasas.
After that the Conquistadors can go after the East Valley League, which has belonged to Birmingham outright for the past five years. (In 2013, Birmingham shared the league title with Granada Hills.)
The optimism can be felt alongside the heat of the July sun.
“There’s a level of comfort and trust between the athletes and the coaching staff,” Falgien said. “It’s always greater when they know we’ve got their backs, so they can go out there without hesitation and buy in, and play as a team, which we worked very hard on.
“I would say, again, if we can stay healthy, this is a group that could really do some good stuff.”