If the El Camino Real Charter High Conquistadors had to pick a year to start slowly then try and build momentum for the West Valley League title and subsequent City Section Division I football playoffs, this was a good one to do it.
Since this is the first year that every City Division I team has a guaranteed postseason game no matter what the record is, because there are both Open and Division I brackets to fill, the pressure to stop losing streaks and correct what’s fixable is slightly less crucial than usual — at least until November.
That doesn’t mean a team like the ECR wanted to keep losing — as it did in its five nonleague games — or feel the improvements and repairs weren’t working. But, after winning their first two league games against Cleveland and Chatsworth, the Conquistadors believe they’re in the right frame of mind as well as being in sound physical presence to battle Birmingham Community Charter High on Friday, Oct. 20.
The visiting Patriots (4-3, 2-0) and Conquistadors (2-5, 2-0) are the remaining unbeaten teams in league play. The winner gets the inside track to the West Valley title and a probable first round home game that would come with being a league champion.
And it’s El Camino Real that is the defending champion, earning the outright league title last year for the first time since 1979. The Conquistadors also made their deepest ever foray into the Division I playoffs, reaching the semifinals before losing to eventual City champion Narbonne of Harbor City.
It’s one reason Coach Jeff Falgien did not want to or try to alter the 2017 nonleague schedule of St. Bonaventure of Ventura, Venice, Agoura, Harvard-Westlake, and Calabasas, even though he understood his team had lost nearly all of its offensive skill position players to graduation and needed time to reload.
“We set that nonleague schedule up intentionally to prepare the boys,” Falgien said. “We knew that when it came time for league…we would not face the kind of competition we faced out of league [every week].
“We played five really talented, really good teams with very good athletes. On several occasions, we were close — we probably could have squeaked away a couple of victories. So it was never a ‘down thing,’ it was an ‘improvement thing’; let’s see what we’ve got, and when the (league) season comes around, we should be in good shape. And it’s playing out that way.”
Algien admits he stole the idea from Birmingham, noting the Patriots had won or shared five consecutive league titles before ECR won it last year.
“They’ve been doing this kind of scheduling for years. Birmingham always plays difficult nonleague schedules. (Coach Jim) Rose is smart, he’s got a system there.”
For their part, the players said they didn’t lose desire from the early losses.
“I think there was carryover from last season. We [now] had higher standards,” said defensive end and receiver Jake Bradley, 16, a senior, thinking back to the team’s 10-3 Division I record in 2016. “Last year when we won, it set [those standards] — ‘we’re that good.’ And this year we expected nothing less.
“We knew St. Bonaventure would be a tough one. I think we had some first game jitters to shake off. But then we lost two heartbreakers (to Venice and Agoura), games that we were in. So our record was inconsistent with how good we actually were. But I knew the wins would come. We were better than our record showed. And now that they’ve started coming, I think we’re back on track.”
That didn’t mean the Conquistadors didn’t have to make some adjustments. The biggest was at quarterback, when starter Stav Graziani was lost to injury in the Agoura game.
Gio Navarro, 17, a senior, moved over from defensive back. Navarro had played quarterback on the junior varsity in 2014, but not on varsity. He’s spent the past few weeks immersed in the offensive playbook and finding a rhythm with the receivers to complement running back Darrien Green, who’s carried a large chunk of the offensive load with 584 rushing yards and six touchdowns.
“At first it was kinda rough, trying to learn all the plays within a short span of time,” said Navarro, who’s passed for 587 yards and six touchdowns (against two interceptions) in five games as the quarterback.
“Now I’m pretty familiar with it. I’m learning how to call audibles, depending on what I see. And since I came from the defensive side, it’s easier for me to know what the defense is doing and how it looks. At first the chemistry kinda wasn’t there [with the receivers]. Now, after four weeks, it’s there.”
There were other changes that had to come, however.
“We had to (learn how to) stay focused and composed,” said defensive back Alayo Harris, 18, a senior who is the team’s third leading tackler (31), and also has four interceptions — including two last week vs. Chatsworth — to lead West Valley League.
“We had games where it was close but if we had stayed more focused and composed we could have come out with the win. You have to worry about (teams becoming fractured and cliquish). In a way I was. But also I knew this group of kids: we’d been on JV teams together. So we knew each other pretty well.”
“The main thing was to learn how to play together. Be a unit,” added linebacker Matthew Flynn, 16, a junior. “We had the athletes, but we weren’t playing too much together. I think we have that now…As the (nonleague season) was closing out I could see it, in practice and the games. We started having really good moments together. So I knew things would come together eventually. And it was really good to finally get that first win out of the way.”
And now the Conquistadors have the chance to show everyone — including Birmingham — that they plan to vigorously defend that league title.
“Our offense is putting up points and our defense has been getting turnovers. We’ve been stopping people,” said offensive lineman Jared Anderson, 16, a senior. “I’m very confident with where the team is now.”