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It's A New World For The Conquistadors PDF Print E-mail
Written by Mike Terry   
Thursday, 13 December 2012 07:23

The Defending City D-II Champions Are Now In Division I And Are Finding Out Even If They Are The New Kids, Everyone Wants To Beat Them


A Target On The Conquistadors - Players (l-r) Maleke Haynes, Julian Richardson and Evan Wardlow understand that opponents view El Camino Real in a different light after the team won the City Division II championship in 2011-12.

One of the great things about winning a high school championship is the only bling you have to worry about (and can hopefully afford) is a ring.

But one thing all coaches worry about, no matter what level you play – preps, colleges, or pros – is what happens the next year.

That "championship hangover" can be real, whether fueled by champagne or not. That was one of issues facing the El Camino Real boys' basketball team entering the 2012- 13 season. The other is having goals vs. expectations, because the two aren't always synonymous. The Conquistadors are looking good at 6-2, going into their game against Reseda on Friday, Dec. 14. Or you could say they are potentially on a slide, having lost two of their last three after a 5-0 start.

Why the dichotomy?

For starters, ECR is a defending City champion, winning the Division II title last March. Eleven players on that team are back this season and seven are juniors. There are also a couple of transfers in the wings waiting for clearance from City Section officials – 6-8 junior center Blair Orr, coming over from Oxnard Santa Clara, and 6-6 sophomore forward Joshua Palmer, who has moved here from Memphis,TN, to be with his ailing mother.

It gives credence to the perception this 2012-13 team should be better than last season's 24-8 squad, and has the potential to be one of the best in the state.

Then add the fact the Conquistadors have moved up to Division I this season, where the level of class and talent should be a definite upgrade from the type of teams El Camino Real previously faced.

Lastly, because ECR is a defending champion, the line of teams eager to beat them stretches from now through the end of the playoffs.

Coach David Rebibo knows that, as this season plays out, that the rules have changed in how his team will be judged. Even though the Conquistadors are in uncharted waters in Division I, outside perception will consider the year a bust without some kind of title banner hanging in the ECR gym.

"We still have to think that we're still the hunted," said Rebibo, talking this week before a team practice. "And we have to maintain that chip on our shoulder, and that understanding, that just because we did well [last season] does not mean it carries over, or that anyone is going to lay down. "We could be better than last year. Last year's team was young and gritty, hungry to prove something. This year I think we're still hungry; I know we want to compete, I know we want to do well. It's making sure we're staying the course of whom we are, and not getting caught up in what everybody thinks we should be.

"We're learning that target on our back is getting bigger by the day, and that everybody that looks at us sees an opportunity – not just a game. And we have to accept that."

That means ignoring outside chatter, which can blindly diminish wins and exaggerate defeats. It also means being prepared to play every game because some opponents will consider it the highlight of their season if they beat you.

For now the players are saying the right things; that they have to expect their opponent's best each game.

And if they didn't understand it before, they do now after playing in two nonleague tournaments, covering eight games in 12 days. "I think it's taken a few games for us to realize it because we weren't completely sure, never having been put in that position before," said shooting guard Julian Richardson, a junior. "So now, as we get into the season more, we understand it more."

"I kind of expected it," adds point guard Maleke Haynes, a junior. "But seeing how every team is playing us now, we get their best shot every game. Bad teams become good teams, good teams become great ones against us because they want to knock us off. They feel they can be at the top with us."

The two losses came in the recently completed Santa Monica tournament, and both were educational for different reasons.

Losing to Chaminade was a "wake up call," Haynes said. "Their school is [almost] around the corner from us. We beat them by a lot last year; they know and we know them." The other was to Los Angeles Brentwood last Saturday, Dec. 8, in their final Santa Monica tournament game. Yes the game went into triple overtime and, playing their eighth game in 12 days, fatigue may have been a factor. But ECR also let a 16-point second half lead slip away, and also missed chances to win the game in regulation and the second overtime.

The loss stung even more since it came after a resounding victory against defending state Division III champion Alemany the day before. But that is the nature of the beast El Camino Real is facing this season.

In the Alemany game, we were coming off a loss [to Chaminade] then play Alemany – which is a very good team – and we played about as well as we can play," Rebibo said. "Then we come up against Brentwood, which is a very good team in my opinion with a bunch of seniors and a talented guard (Tra Holder). We play how we're supposed to play for three quarters. And we stop playing in the fourth quarter.

"That's a maturity thing, and it's an understanding that while some people may lie down, some people will keep fighting you because they believe this is a way for them to make a name for themselves." The players say they will be on guard against any prolonged letdowns because they feel they have a special core. Some have been teammates on youth and travel teams before high school, and they know each other well. And now they have an opportunity to establish a name at the Division I level, which would be an even bigger deal.

"That was maybe a thought that we've been together long enough we didn't have to exactly do the things we did last year to win," said wing forward Evan Wardlow, a junior.

"But we also know everybody still doubted us because it was a Division II championship. We all knew we couldn't hang our hats on that just because it was a 'championship.' If we really want to prove something, we have to get a Division I [title].

"So we came in this year knowing we still had to have the hunger and the fight. We're happy with the move to D-I, and we feel like a D-I team." "Everyone is on the same page," Haynes said. "Last year should have been the year everyone didn't know their roles. But since we brought the whole team back, and since we won, it should be the same roles as last year so we can be successful again."

Adds Richardson, "I believe we can get a lot done. Even though the majority of our team is juniors and seniors, we can get a lot of stuff accomplished because we'll still have another year to do what we can do."

Last Updated on Thursday, 13 December 2012 07:51