Conquistadors are Determined to Rebound from Disappointing Season

M. Terry / SFVS

Single mindset — The four captains of the El Camino Real football team —  Jacob Monico, Elijah Vazquez, Matthew Abajian and Bryce Smets (l-r) — all say the team is focused is on winning.

The early afternoon sun burning off the last of the morning clouds over the football field at El Camino Real Charter High is an apt metaphor for the 2019 team starting to chug through practice. This is another day, a new day. Turn the page on last year.

It could also represent the Conquistadors shining a light on themselves.

The upset loss to South Gate High in last year’s City Section Division I first round playoff game that abruptly stalled and defined ECR’s 6-5 overall record left a grim aftertaste in the mouths and minds of this season’s team. And it is serving as fuel for the summer’s preparation for the upcoming fall.

“What really stung was we knew we could beat them,” said starting center Elijah Vazquez, a senior who will turn 17 in November. “We watch the film all the time — ‘we missed that block’ or ‘should have caught that ball.’ But this year we’re not playing the game of ‘we should have done this’; instead we’ll play ‘this is what we did.’”

Wide receiver Jacob Monico, 15, a junior, takes it a step further.

“All I remember [about last season] is the losses,” Monico said. “The teams we played against we felt we could beat but nobody executed, nobody played to their full potential. And that [angered] everybody here the most. We beat ourselves.”

Some of the malfeasance could be chalked up to youth. “We were very young last year,” noted Conquistador’s Coach Jeff Falgien, which created pockets of immaturity — there was one game where Falgien had to bench six starters for a half as a disciplinary measure — and repeated lapses in concentration on the field. And it all came to a head in that South Gate loss.

“When you can have five turnovers and still be in a position to win the game, how lucky is that?” said Falgien, adding the Conquistadors had a potential game-winning field goal attempt blocked on the final play.

“But the flip side tells you what that game should have been about. And there again, kudos to them: [South Gate] stayed in that game and won the game. Even that last play — I don’t want to take anything away from them, but there was a missed block on our part. It does not help.”

Football demands more than physical growth. There’s also the collective mental growth in a team, of being willing to be part of something bigger than one’s own self.

That is the kind of squad Falgien said he has been seeing in the summer workouts.

“I think that memory (of the South Gate loss) is in all of their heads. And that’s good,” he said. “Those losses, having to sit out players for discipline, that was a heavy price at the time. But what it did for the integrity of the overall view and perception of the program — what it looks like to be a member of this program — we’re seeing it now. There seems to be a focus.”

There were also changes in the coaching staff — new offensive and defensive coordinators, and additional position coaches. “We have more eyes on smaller groups. We have a very structured weight room/classroom/field approach. It’s a complete, whole program,” Falgien said.

The Conquistadors were a more run-oriented offense in 2018, due in part to having two young quarterbacks. But Matthew Abajian secured the starting job midway through last season and is hoping for more freedom to throw this season in a passing scheme that has been totally revamped.

“The offense has really grown,” said Abajian, 16, a junior. “It’s a lot more advanced — new calls, new plays. I’m learning my reads, how to break down the defenses, different throws for different coverages.

“Definitely there will be more throwing this year. At least 50-50 run and pass. Hopefully there will be even more throwing than running. This year we have a lot of people we can throw to and we have [more] speed. We also have great running backs to keep the defenses honest.”

Abajian then returns to the South Gate loss in providing a theme of accountability for this year’s group of players.

“Execution. We must execute,” he said. “Against South Gate, every play at least one person made a mistake. And it only takes one mistake to throw a play away.”

Wide receiver Bryce Smets, 17, a senior, said he is “excited” by the possibilities and potential for ECR. At the same time, he wants — even demands — the team take the field this season with a core belief in itself.

“It’s attitude. Going out there knowing we’re the better team,” Smets said. “We can be one of the most talented teams in the Valley. But we have to act like it. Attitude and expecting to win.”

There’s already a lot in place at El Camino: a senior-heavy group motivated to rid itself of the self-doubts and self-inflicted wounds that hobbled the 2018 season. There’s also a desire to make noise — a roar, not a peep —in the City postseason that will have room for 24 of the 26 teams in Division I.

“It’s about getting into the playoffs and taking advantage of where we are,” Vazquez said. “We won’t really focus too much on where this [team] is ranked and that [team] is ranked. We just like to play and let our work speak for itself.”

The season kicks off Aug. 23 at Venice High. The nonleague opponents also include Reseda, Agoura and Crespi high schools. The first West Valley League game is against defending champion Birmingham Community Charter High.

El Camino Real will have learned a lot about itself by playoff time.

Monico, like the rest of the team, is expecting better results.

“We’re all definitely on the same page,” he said. “It’s going to be way more crazy this year — but in a good way.”

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