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A Shot At Redemption PDF Print E-mail
Written by Mike Terry, Contributing Writer   
Thursday, 01 March 2012 04:58

Nearly Two Years Ago, El Camino Real Suffered A Horrendous Meltdown In Losing The City Section Division III Boys' Basketball Title To Verdugo Hills. Now The Conquistadors Get Another Chance, This Time In The Division II Game Against Garfield.

MIKE TERRY/SFVS

Courting A Title -- Senior guard Jake Karalnick (left), junior forward Michael Thomas (middle) and sophomore guard/forward Julian Richardson (right) have each played a key role in helping El Camino Real reach the City Section boys' basketball Division II championship game. The Conquistadors will play Los Angeles Garfield on Friday at Roybal Learning Center in Los Angeles.

The bus ride back to school that day should have been loud and raucous.

El Camino Real should have been celebrating its first ever Los Angeles City Section boys' basketball title. The Conquistadors appeared well on their way, leading Verdugo Hills by 17 points after three quarters, and still well ahead, 52-41, with 5:50 left to play in the Division III championship game played on March 6, 2010.

And then everything – the game, the title – didn't unravel for El Camino Real; it evaporated.

Just. Like. That.

Verdugo Hills scored the last 19 points of the game to win, 60-52. The Conquistadors couldn't make anything but turnovers and bad decisions. The meltdown was complete, total.

It would have been understandable if Coach Dave Rebibo – who stood there afterward and answered question after question about his team's collapse – had lost more than a game that day. There are coaches who would have quit or been hounded to resign. A loss like that could define or destroy a career, scaring a coach for life, especially if he or she is never able to get back to a title game.

But less than two years later, Rebibo and ECR are again battling for a championship. The Conquistadors, the top seed in Division II, will face Los Angeles Garfield, the second seed, on Friday, March 2, for the title. The game is scheduled for 8 p.m., in the Los Angeles Roybal Learning Center gymnasium.

And he's doing it with a collection of sophomores and juniors who people thought before the season were probably a year away from contending for a City championship.

But the team's development has not been a total surprise to the coach.

"All summer we focused on individual skills and basic fundamentals," Rebibo said. "Going into the fall we thought 'we gonna play defense.' We had two-hour practices where we didn't touch the ball offensively, because we knew not having a legit 6-7 or 6-8 inside big man…we had to work. But the guys bought in. And that's where it started for us."

By all judgements it's been a wonderful season for ECR. The overall record is 21-7 in what Rebibo says is "the toughest schedule we've had since I've been here." The Conquistadors finished second in the West Valley League at 8-2, losing only to undefeated league champ Taft. There were impressive nonleague wins against Chaminade, La Canada Renaissance Academy, Pacific Palisades and Rialto Eisenhower.

"They are very intelligent kids," Rebibo said of the team. "They've experienced it all – high AAU levels, playing against Pac-12 guys. We struggled at times. But when we stay together, and we stay the course of what we want to accomplish as a team, we're very tough."

His precocious group of 10th graders features zippy point guard Maleke Haynes, who averages 14 points and 10 assists, and keeps the Conquistadors running at a high-octane pace. "He really is the motor," Rebibo said.

But there is also sophomore Julian Richardson, a 6-feet-3 shooting guard and wing forward, who averages 17 points and six rebounds.

Richardson, 16, has basketball bloodlines. His father, Jerome "Pooh" Richardson, played point guard at UCLA from 1985-89, and spent 10 seasons in the NBA and one other professional season in Italy. But Julian is about creating his own identity.

"I don't feel there is any pressure (to be him) because he played a different position than I did," he said "And I hope I have a couple more inches to grow."

Richardson is also not surprised that El Camino Real has developed quickly.

"Many of us have been knowing each other a long time now," he said. "Before high school we were playing on a travel team, Valley Basketball Academy.

"I feel a lot of people, because of our age, feel we're just a young team. But we have a lot of basketball IQ. So we're not as young as they think we are."

Besides Richardson, another potential star is 6-feet-5 forward Michael Thomas. Thomas, a junior, transferred to ECR last fall from Taft – "a blessing in disguise," Rebibo said – and has provided a spark both on offense and defense.

"I would say what I do on offense may be a little more important," said Thomas, 17, who averages 14 points and eight rebounds. "I still need to improve defensively, mainly on the inside."

Jake Karalnick, a 6-feet-2 guard, is the team's lone senior. He's had a frustrating year, averaging two points and two rebounds, and had his senior season interrupted by an appendectomy. But he has been willing to take more of a mentor role, and help the younger Conquistadors mature.

"It's been a lot of fun blending with them," said Karalnick, 17. "Even though they might be a year or two years younger than me, I still made a family bond with them, and wanted to help guide them through things. Not just basketball but things outside of basketball, too."

Rebibo hasn't bared his thoughts to many about that game of two years ago and fortunately not many have asked him to relive the pain and angst.

But earlier this week he did talk about the experience – and how he survived it, emotionally and psychologically.

"You ride back home from a game like that, where you were in complete control for three quarters and in one five-minute span everything just spirals down, you sit back and think 'what could I have done differently, what could I have done better what could I have changed,'" Rebibo said.

"You do question yourself. 'Hey, will I ever get this opportunity again…' I can't tell you how many times I've watched that fourth quarter over and over again. But the fact that we got there, and we did the things we did – our first City title game in school history, first state playoff berth – I wasn't heartbroken. I didn't question whether I could coach again. The only thing I questioned was whether I had handled things the right way."

In looking back, Rebibo said that 2010 team ultimately fell victim to overconfidence after getting the early big lead, and playing as if the outcome was a forgone conclusion. Also, "we had battled all year with leadership issues. But even to this day I still look back and think did I handle things the right way. A lot of that has to fall on me. And I have to accept the responsibility."

Karalnick played in that game, and the memory burns strong as well.

"(The loss) made me want to work harder," he said. "Even though we got to the state playoffs, during the summer I started working as hard as I could."

But, like Rebibo, Karalnick won't spend a lot of time this week rehashing the past as a motivational tool for his teammates. He doesn't think it's needed.

"I think the team chemistry is a lot better now than it was two years ago," Karalnick said. "I can tell we like each other a lot more than the other team did." Like ECR, Garfield (27-6) was a second place finisher in its league (Eastern). They also had a couple of signature nonleague wins against Chino Don Lugo, and Carson (twice), and knocked off Granada Hills in the Division II semifinals. So overconfidence will not be an issue.

"We are going to continue to do the things we do," Rebibo said. "But we're very aware of Garfield and who they are. They are a very solid, scrappy team that plays hard and is well coached. They are somebody we are not going to take lightly." "We have to bring a lot of energy. We can't start off slow," added Thomas. "We have to come out with the intensity and fire that we know we have."

On Friday the bus will arrive shortly after school ends, and transport the Conquistadors from Woodland Hills to downtown Los Angeles, for another date with destiny.

Rest assured, ECR is raring to go – forward.

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