M. Terry / SFVS

(No) Summer Vacation — Myles Williams, Dupree Fuller Jr., and Matt Flynn (l-r) are hard at work preparing for El Camino Real’s 2018 football season.

Building a culture, a program, an identity — however you want to define it — usually doesn’t happen swiftly or haphazardly. It’s a piece-by-piece construction, not pre-fab.

Jeff Falgien is beginning his fourth season as the head coach at El Camino Real High. Before that he spent several years as an assistant to then head coach Kevin Williams, who enjoyed various degrees of success here. Falgien could have kept things status quo, including the double wing-T offensive system Williams ran. But Falgien and his staff have spent a great deal of time reconfiguring ECR’s offensive philosophies and schemes.

And Falgien doesn’t believe the work stops when the players leave the practice field.

“The win-loss record is important,” the coach said. “But to me… if we focus on creating men of character, and instilling an understanding of discipline and work ethic, once that buy-in is achieved — and that level of trust is established — the win-loss thing kinda takes care of itself.” 

Something has worked. The Conquistadors have won two consecutive West Valley League titles  — 2016 and 2017 —  and have gone undefeated in league play both years. Last year’s team had quite the balancing act, losing all five nonleague games, winning all five league games, then winning their first round match against Hamilton High of Los Angeles in the City Section Division I playoffs before falling to Garfield High of Los Angeles in the quarterfinals, and finishing the year at 6-6.

“For the first time in school history we’ve had back-to-back league champions,” Falgien said. “Those successes are fun to celebrate and enjoy. But honestly, what they’re doing off the field — as far as giving back to the community, working in the food banks and the rescue missions — that is also establishing a well-rounded football program.”

One thing winning the West Valley League has done for El Camino Real is create a quiet but evident level of confidence that permeates throughout the program. The team is collectively younger this season; the roster will be dominated by underclassmen, some of them still growing into their bodies and some of them with precious little varsity experience. That being said, the talent level is apparent, and the players fully expect to contend for a third straight West Valley championship — and maybe more.

“It’s like Coach says — ‘one more degree for the three.’ As in put that one more percent [of work] in,” said Dupree Fuller Jr., 16 and a senior, who is 6-3, 215 pounds, and being primed to play multiple positions.

“You know how water boils at 212-degrees? At 211 it’s just hot. But you add that one more degree, it boils. Adding that one more degree makes us work harder.”

Matt Flynn, 17 and a senior who’s listed at 6-2 and 225 pounds, heads up the linebacker corps that will be the most experienced unit on the team. “We’re all pretty much three-year varsity kids,” he said. They are expected to not only lead the defense, but also establish a standard of work ethic and selflessness for the rest of the team.

“We feel the responsibility [to lead] but we also trust everyone around us,” Flynn said. “I feel that [mixing] the younger kids with the kids who have experience can help us get that push to hopefully have a deeper playoff run.”

Myles Williams is one of those “younger kids” Flynn refers to. At 6-3 and 200  pounds, Williams — who is preparing to play tight end and defensive end — already has the physical capability for varsity. But the 15-year-old sophomore only got a small sampling last year, appearing briefly in the team’s two playoff games after spending his freshman year mainly on the junior varsity.

“I’ve been told (by other players) to expect a higher level of strength and a faster pace of the game,” Williams said. He plans to incorporate the team mantra into his game. “We don’t give up easy. We don’t give up the fight. If you want something, you have to take it from us. It’s always been [that way] here, from what I’ve seen.”

A third straight league championship will be a challenge for El Camino Real. Birmingham is a perennial contender. Cleveland and Granada Hills were both moved up to City’s Division I this season and are expected to have a definite impact. Taft (Division II) and Chatsworth (Division III) are capable of being spoilers to someone’s dreams.

And the nonleague schedule — beginning with St. Bonaventure High of Ventura on Aug. 17, followed by Reseda, Sylmar, Agoura and Crespi — will test the Conquistadors early and often.

But it’s also the kind of schedule, with the proper results and a little luck, that can make ECR a legitimate playoff contender in November.

“I think we could be something really big,” Flynn said. “It’s been building the last two years.”

Falgien, as coaches often do, will not look too far down the road.

“Our goal is to always win league first. But I think it’s a reality,” he said. “We have a lot of good talent. We’ll be young this year, and that brings its own set of hurdles and challenges. The West Valley is going to be a strong league. [But our] hopes are there. And if we can stay healthy and keep the grades in the right direction, we should be fine.”