ECR Has Gotten Better by Getting Defensive

M. Terry / SFVS

The Firm — Iliana Camua, Rebecca Saidoff, Payton Love and Jackie Privado personify the strong team vibe at El Camino Real Charter High this season.

You could call the El Camino Real girls’ basketball team short, which seems plausible with a roster that lists only two players being six feet in height and neither one is a starter.

But you better not consider them — or think of them — as being soft.

These 2019-20 Conquistadors have fully embraced the concept of playing all-out, pressure defense on their opponents from the opening jump ball to the final horn. They are not concerned with spectacular offensive displays that go viral, or lighting up scoreboards beyond infinity. They feel they can, and mostly do, find enough points in the game to beat you.

What they feed on is seeing their opponent being frustrated or turning slack-jawed at the furious onslaught of bodies, hands, arms and elbows trying to make it as difficult as possible to get off a good shot, or any shot for that manner.

Another way to look at it: great height doesn’t always guarantee great heart.

“I have seen other teams get tired (playing against ECR),” offered guard Jackie Privado, 16, a junior. “We’re also a fast team, and that’s how we score a lot because we do move the ball around to each other, and get the open shot.”

“I wanted our team to be much better on defense,” said guard Payton Love, 16, a junior. “That was something we lacked last year. I felt if we focused on defense more it would produce offense for us, make it easier…. Not everyone could move the same, so we needed to condition ourselves to be a high-pressure team. And everyone had to be all in, and give all the effort needed.”

The team’s commitment is there — and not just because its record sits at 12-4, with a six-game winning streak, entering West Valley League play this week.

“We trust in the system and trust each other,” said Iliana Camua, 17, a senior. “This year we knew we had to step up. We felt we could have (done more) last year, and didn’t like the way the year ended. This year we were gonna play the right way and keep our minds focused.”

Fellow senior Rebecca Saidoff agreed.

“I’ve been playing with everyone on this team for a very long time,” said Saidoff, 17, a guard. “I know their tendencies and where they like to get the ball, where they like to shoot.

“(But) this year I feel the whole vibe is different. Everyone loves each other; we mesh well together. The energy is always there, we’re always picking each other up. Going into league, the energy is exactly where we want it to be.”

Rai Colston — who graduated from ECR, and played basketball here and at Cal State University, Northridge — is now in his third season as head coach. He wanted to see his team rebound from last season’s 17-12 overall record, a season that ended with big losses to Narbonne High of Harbor City in the third place game of City Section Open Division playoffs, and to Cathedral Catholic High of San Diego in the Southern Regional playoffs of the state CIF Division I tournament.

But they had to want a better season as well, and put in the effort to make it so. So far, that is what is happening.

“We want to be known for playing good defense and making it hard for teams to score against us,” Colston said. “It’s part of our makeup because we don’t have ‘big girls’ on our team. So defense is something we want to hang our hat on, good pressure defense that can create more opportunities for us. We can’t just sit down in a half-court set and work. We want to make other teams play at our pace.”

And the Conquistadors have been making other teams earn everything they get against them. The next question — can they continue supplying the same effort against the teams that know them well. League play began Wednesday, Jan. 8, against Birmingham Community Charter High (results were not available at press time), and resumes Friday, Jan. 10, against Chatsworth High.

“I’d say we’re where we should be,” Colston said. “I think we gave up a couple of games — our record could be even better — but I’m satisfied with where we’re at right now and the direction we are going. Hopefully we can continue to keep rising and playing better with the most meaningful part of the season ahead of us.”

It doesn’t sound as if Colston has to convince his players.

“The defensive intensity has to stay the same,” Love said. “We have to pick it up as the season goes on, get stronger as league goes on, and keep playing as a team.”

Adds Saidoff, “I think we can do really good things this year, in league and playoffs. It’s a different chemistry here…way different.”

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