Last Update: Wednesday, August 27, 2014
|Conquistadors Fulfill Their Destiny|
|Written by Mike Terry|
|Thursday, 13 March 2014 04:20|
Photo By Darryl Washburn
On March 8, the history and aspirations of the El Camino Real High athletic program took a massive step forward. While the Conquistadors have captured Division I championships in baseball, softball and wrestling, none of those titles will resonate as loudly as the one won by the boys’ basketball team.
The 58-56 victory against defending champion Westchester of Los Angeles, before a packed gym at Los Angeles Southwest College, has lifted ECR (25-6) into another level. Basketball at the highest level, as far as City Section sports go, has long been the legacy of teams like Westchester (which has won 12 titles since 1991), Crenshaw of Los Angeles, Fairfax of Los Angeles and Taft. Now ECR, thanks to its marvelous senior squad, is in the club.
“I can’t put it into words yet,” said first year Coach Joe Wyatt. “Nobody believed in us in the beginning of the year. We had a tough schedule; at one point we were 6-4 and everybody’s like ‘aw, this isn’t the same team.’ But I kept telling them we were preparing for the end of the season. And they battled.”
The core group of Conquistadors who have been together since their sophomore year won the school’s first basketball title ever in 2012 in Division II. El Camino Real moved into Division I last year and made it to the title game, but lost to Westchester. But this year the Conquistadors were able to take that final step for the final conquest.
And it was earned, not given. Despite a 10-point lead midway through final quarter, ECR had to withstand a late and furious rally by the Comets (28-6) and it’s own self-erosion of the lead via turnovers. But a couple key defensive stops and four critical free throws by guard Maleke Haynes in the final minute were enough to deny Westchester a third title in the past five years.
In earlier times they would have called this “a Kodak moment.” But the YouTube generation is all about video, babe. And in watching the hugs and tears between players, coaches and parents, the celebration by ECR truly qualified as “moving” pictures.
The victory earned El Camino Real a slot in the Open Division of the CIF Southern California Regional playoffs. The Conquistadors will host Etiwanda on Friday, March 14. And it’s a good thing ECR will have a week to recover and get ready. The players didn’t sound too eager to let go of this championship memory.
“It feels great to be the ‘real’ Valley school to come down and win a [City] championship,” said guard Julian Richardson, one of 10 seniors on the roster, following a long embrace with his father Jerome, a former UCLA and NBA player.
“We’re the first group to win any basketball title at El Camino, and it’s great we’ve been able to put up two for the school. We knew we weren’t playing our best basketball earlier in the season, but we’ve peaked at the right time.”
“We’re gonna remembered forever. I love it,” added Evan Wardlow. It certainly wasn’t easy. But breakthroughs rarely are.
The first half was tighter than a latex jumpsuit. Westchester only led 26-25 at the half because both teams were struggling to find and maintain any kind of offensive flow. Outside of Elijah Stewart, Layon Gooden and Cameron Young, the Comets didn’t have any one with two made baskets. El Camino Real also missed shots by the bucketful; collectively,the Conquistadors only made nine field goals in the half.
But El Camino Real surged in the third quarter, outscoring Westchester 19-10. Wardlow, who had been concentrating on defending Myles Stewart, the Comets’ most explosive scorer, suddenly got red hot himself and scored nine of his teamhigh 15 points. Richardson also scored nine, and was gobbling up rebounds; he wound up with 11 for the game.
“I think we just locked in defensively (in the third quarter,” Wyatt said. “We kept working, we got some stops. We made shots. I think if we had made some free throws early, the game would have changed. But even though we weren’t making shots, we stuck with the game plan.”
At some point the Comets would have to respond, and they did. ECR was still ahead by nine, 53-44, with two minutes left in the fourth quarter when Elijah Stewart — who led all scorers with 25 points — started lighting up the Conquistador’s defense. He scored a quick five points on consecutive trips down court to cut the deficit to five. And with 30 seconds left, he made another three-pointer to cut the ECR lead to 54-52. But Haynes did not let the title slip away. He calmly made four free throws in those final 30 seconds, and Westchester never had the chance to tie the game or go ahead with one shot.
“I was very confident in my shot,” said Haynes, who scored 13 points. “I had missed a couple earlier, but I knew what I did wrong and I corrected it. “Last year (against Westchester), with four minutes left, it was a tie game but we gave up the lead. We didn’t want to let that happen this time. We just had to come through, play as a team and put it together.”