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Last Chance To Go For The Gold PDF Print E-mail
Written by Mike Terry   
Thursday, 13 February 2014 06:44

History Makers — El Camino Real seniors Maleke Hayes, Julian Richardson
and Evan Wardlow are keys parts of the basketball team’s most successful run
in school history.

The El Camino Real Seniors Want To Finish With A Flourish As The Prep Boys’ Basketball
Playoffs Approach

They’re seniors now, this core group of the El Camino Real High boys’ basketball team. Julian Richardson, Evan Wardlow, Maleke Haynes are all 18, too young to have crow’s feet around the eyes but able to give wizened stares and discuss goals of a singular purpose without sounding like robots. The legacy they will leave at El Camino Real is a rock-solid one.

These Conquistadors have recorded three consecuive 20- win seasons and dislodged Taft High as the dominant boys team in the West Valley League (winning the five consecutive meetings between the teams, including three times this season, the last being an 82-53 beatdown on Feb. 7). They are on the verge of a second straight league championship.

They have a Los Angeles City Section Division II championship ring from 2012 for the school’s first basketball title, and were within four minutes of winning the City Section Division I title last year before ultimately falling to Westchester of Los Angeles.

Also notable for this group this season: they have not lost to a City team, the toughest one they’ve faced being Fairfax of Los Angeles back on Dec. 14. Barring a major flop in their final league games this week with Granada Hills and Cleveland, ECR, which entered the week 20-6 overall and 8-0 in league play, is banking on no worse than a No.2 seeding when the City Division I playoff brackets are announced on Saturday, Feb. 15.

That’s enough to fill a couple of scrapbooks. But they say they’re not done. “Of course (it’s about winning) the city championship. But we’re also headed to state,”Haynes said. “No one thinks we can win state because a lot of good teams are headed there. But we feel we’re the best team in City and the state. We want both of those rings.” “We won’t be satisfied unless we win the City championship,” Wardlow said. “And we want the state title, too; that’s not out of the picture at all.

We want to go out as winners, and put a banner up. You can be good. But if you don’t win you don’t have anything to show for it. We want something to show for it.” “I don’t think there was (extra) pressure this year because we all wanted to go out with a championship,” Richardson said. “If there was any pressure, we put it on us, rather than what anyone outside — parents or media — think we should do.

The goal has always been win the City championship, and try to get a state title.” Still, the story about El Camino Real basketball in 2013-14 is not entirely about its veteran roster in which 10 of the 13 players are seniors. There’s also the new guy. Well, actually, Joe Wyatt is not all that new. He’s been involved with the program several years as a junior varsity coach and lead assistant to Dave Rebibo. But when Rebibo left after last season to become an assistant coach at the University of San Francisco, Wyatt was promoted to head coach.

The transition was and has been relatively smooth. Wyatt has been diligent in not allowing the seniors’ season to become about him, with a sack full of radical changes or other methodologies to show who’s in charge. But every coach wants to put an imprint on a program, wants certain things done his way. And he has to convince the team his way will work. “It wasn’t hard for me to take the job. I didn’t want someone else to coach these kids,” Wyatt said. “Still, we’ve had some ups and downs. They were used to Dave’s voice.

I’m a little tougher and my demand a little more. “Sometimes I want Maleke to do certain things, not take a certain shots, if I had him from the beginning he would understand (my methods) a little more. Guys next year will know what I want. That’s the hardest thing, getting these guys to buy into some of the things I like. What has been harder: pressure for the seniors who want to play D-1 college basketball. That can keep a team from getting to the point they want to get to. That can interfere with team goals.”

He threw a tough schedule at the team, including high profile tournaments in Las Vegas and at Westchester. Wyatt also ratcheted up the demands of practice and attention to game detail.

The players feel they have responded. “The key difference? A different playing style,” Haynes said. “We’re more up-and-down the floor now, whereas Coach [Dave] Rebibo was more about halfcourt sets. Even though we lost Michael Thomas (to graduation), we have more athletes. We have more guards, so we have to get up and down the court more. “I like it…It’s a lot of responsibility on the point guard and the guards period because we take control of the ball a lot. So we have to make good decisions in the open court. And there’s not a lot of time to make those decisions, often just splitseconds on who to pass it to on your left or right.”

“The intensity we have in practice and in games (is higher),” added Wardlow. “We’re held to a higher standard to play a lot harder, to be pushed to our fullest limits. And everybody’s held accountable. That helps us; there’s no excuses.” Wyatt frets occasionally if the seniors are not enjoying their final year. Because, he said, high school basketball in general has gotten beyond just playing the game.

“There is, collectively, just more pressure outside off the court,” he said. “I think they all want to play at next level and that’s understandable. That’s more the pressure, what other people think they should have. But now put it aside and focus to getting to championship. If something comes, so be it. “When I played, it was playing to have fun. Now it’s more pressure with AAU, TV, etc. This is supposed to be fun time but it’s not always.” Wardlow is the only one of the trio who has verbally committed to a college, planning to attend Santa Clara University next fall. Both Haynes and Richardson want to consider each and every option available to them. And Richardson wants to assure those on the outside that, yes, there has been plenty of joy in the season. “I’ve had fun playing high school basketball. If somebody can’t find any fun playing, then they shouldn’t play,” he said. "That’s what the game’s about, it’s about having fun. It’s not a job; nobody’s a pro athlete right now.

It’s about having fun and hanging out with your friends. If you can get a scholarship, get a scholarship. But it's about having fun.” It’s crunch time now, however. A conclusion is rapidly approaching to their season and their ECR careers. Westchester is a clear favorite to repeat as champion. And if a state title is to be attained, the Conquistadors would probably have to go through teams like Loyola of Los Angeles, Mater Dei of Santa Ana, or Centennial of Corona just to play a Northern California school for the championship.

The confidence remains unfazed, the single-minded purpose unbowed. And the three seniors seemingly speak as one, again, on how to find success in the playoffs. “Rebounding is huge for us, because in all of our losses we got outrebounded,” Haynes said. “Not make turnovers. And we’ve got to make shots. We’ve got to come out confident, make shots, and if we do those things we can come out victorious.”

“When it comes to playoffs, seedings don’t matter,” Wardlow said. “Because everybody has to play their best every night, or anyone’s capable of getting beat — even if you’re a ‘one’ seed, anyone can beat you if you don’t come ready to play.” “We definitely have to pick it up on defense,” added Richardson. “And rebounding.

That’s been our problem…it was more a desire thing in the beginning. We lost (the title game) last year because we didn’t rebound. And it’s always been a key thing with us when we play bigger teams.” Wyatt is in total agreement with those assessments. “(In the playoffs) this team needs to be really playing defense and rebounding,” the coach said. “That’s a big key for us. And not trying to do nothing they can’t do. Play your role and we’ll be fine.”