M. Terry / SFVS

The Warriors — ECR seniors (l-r) Cole Kitchen, Joey Klein, Jack Whisnant and Parker Tuszynski embrace the level of competitiveness required of West Valley League baseball.

The annual scrum that is the West Valley League baseball race is nearing the finish line. Not surprisingly, there are several teams still with a shot at winning the league championship with two weeks left to play.

Also not surprisingly, El Camino Real Charter High is among those teams. The Conquistadors (18-8-1, 5-1) are, in fact, on top of the league with a one-game lead over two-time defending City Section champion Birmingham entering games this week.

They are playing steady, smooth, and with confidence having won seven of their last 10 games entering their May 1 contest against Chatsworth. (The results of ECR’s game against Chatsworth on Wednesday were unavailable at press time.)

This is the kind of El Camino Real squad that has proven to be a formidable foe come playoff time — one that pitches well, catches the ball and can lean on clutch hitting. And a group that doesn’t feel burdened by the weight of a Conquistador legacy that includes nine City titles since 1993, the last one coming in 2016.

The Conquistadors also understand how its balanced, rigorous league can prepare a team for the postseason. Since 2001, a West Valley team has won a City, Invitational, Division I or Open Division baseball title every year except 2011 and 2013. 

This crop of Conquistadors qualifies as a veteran group — only three sophomores populate the 17-player roster, the rest being juniors or seniors.

“A veteran group — well, yes and no,” said ECR Coach Josh Lienhard. “It’s pretty much the same team as last year minus some guys but the addition of a couple of guys.

“They have always been able to pitch and play defense. The pitching has been really good for us this year. Hitting with runners in scoring position, probably for the first half of the season, was a struggle. But it has gotten better in the second half.”

No doubt, the Conquistadors got a boost when infielder Andy Ambriz, a senior and a transfer from Chatsworth, became eligible to play after sitting out a month. He’s driven in 18 runs in the 14 games he has played in.

But the team’s foundation comes from seniors like Cole Kitchen, Joey Klein, Parker Tuszynski and Jack Whisnant. All have grown up and developed in the ECR system, and embrace the challenge of playing highly competitive baseball in the West Valley and elsewhere.

“I know we’re kind of expected to be one of the better teams in the City [although] it’s not like I’ve been following City baseball since I was a little kid,” said Kitchen, who pitches and plays the outfield.

“I do think we’re better this year. We have a lot more experience; last year, a lot of the kids had come up from JV, so there were a lot of fresh faces on the varsity. This year, a lot of those juniors that were on that team last year now know what it’s like to play in [big] games, and bring that to this year’s team. I think that all helps us.”

Whisnant agrees. Even though the Conquistadors — somewhat unexpectedly — reached the Open Division final last year, the returning players this season did not take the defeat to Birmingham well.

“We were really upset after that game,” said Whisnant, a right-handed pitcher. “[This season] that has been our focus — not just getting to Dodger Stadium, but winning. It’s not that we did or didn’t expect to get there. We knew the work we needed to put in to get there. The people who doubted us, that drove us and motivated us.”

Still, every season has a pivotal point. For El Camino Real in 2019, it might have been the April 12 game against Cleveland. The Cavaliers had beaten ECR two days before at Cleveland; a sweep of the two-game league series would not have been fatal, but it could have been the kind of psychological blow that can send a season tilting downward.

“We fell behind 2-0 in the fourth inning,” said Klein, who pitches and plays first base. “We weren’t pressing; but when we played them at Cleveland we gave [the game] away in the seventh inning. This time we stayed confident, got runners on and tied the game in the fifth. It was 2-2 in the sixth, and we got a clutch hit to put us up 4-2. But we wanted more, and added four more runs. That showed to us a lot about ourselves.”

Tuszynski, the leading catcher, sees another vital part of the equation that has evolved: the team chemistry growing stronger as the season has continued.

“Our cohesiveness was there last year because we all had played on JV together for the most part,” he said. “This year, the cohesiveness over the summer and fall was kinda ‘iffy,’ but we’ve gotten much closer.

“If you had asked me at the beginning of the summer (about the team’s chemistry), I wasn’t sure….But we started hanging out with each other on the weekends, and became a family. I love it.”

The players and Lienhard all say they haven’t accomplished anything yet. But winning league, to them, is an important prize because it all but guarantees the victor a high seed in the Open Division bracket that will be announced on May 11. Lienhard is anticipating a championship bracket with “lots of parity,” with contenders like San Pedro, Palisades, Birmingham, Chatsworth, San Fernando, Carson and Poly all jockeying for position.

And, of course, El Camino Real.

The Conquistadors know this game and plan to be ready.

“We know what we’re capable of when we play together as a team,” Kitchen said.