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ERIC SONDHEIMER / ON HIGH SCHOOLS

El Camino Real savors City title, takes breath before regional

The Conquistadores won their first City Section Division I title in boys' basketball Saturday and will host Etiwanda in the Open Division Southern California regional playoffs.

March 09, 2014|Eric Sondheimer
  • Maleke Haynes (22) and El Camino Real have defeated Fairfax and Westchester in back-to-back games to win the City Section Division I boys' basketball championship and a high seeding in the regional playoffs.
Maleke Haynes (22) and El Camino Real have defeated Fairfax and Westchester… (Genaro Molina / Los Angeles…)

There were reports of teenage zombies walking around Woodland Hills on Sunday morning.

It had everything to do with El Camino Real winning its first City Section Division I championship in boys' basketball Saturday night with a dramatic 58-56 victory over 12-time champion Westchester.

Afterward, players decided to hang out at the Woodland Hills home of junior guard Brandon Russell munching on pizza, listening to music and not letting their moment of triumph vanish until about 5 a.m. Sunday, when players started going home.

"We were so excited," said Evan Wardlow, who scored 15 points in the final. "Everyone doubted us and said we weren't good enough. We knew we could do this from the beginning. It was about believing in each other and just staying focused at the task at hand. We struggled in some areas, but when it came down to it, we made the plays to win the game."

By Sunday afternoon, most of the players were probably taking naps and not worrying about their opponent for the Southern California regional playoffs that begin Friday for the Open Division. El Camino Real will play host to Etiwanda in the eight-team regional.

The path to winning a section title requires so much energy and commitment that moving on to the next goal of winning a state title can be a daunting task for everyone involved.

"We're going to compete for the state title, but our main goal was to get the City title," Wardlow said.

Coach Joe Wyatt thinks his team has gained confidence with Saturday's championship.

"Now they can breathe and relax and play free," he said. "They were tight from the beginning of the season. The expectation is not as high. They can play like they did in the summer."

It was during the summer that the Conquistadores were considered the City title favorite ahead of Westchester. But early losses this season tested the character of the Conquistadores.

"They got caught up trying to get scholarships and that affected them and our team success," Wyatt said.

In recent weeks, players focused on team goals, and unselfishness replaced concerns over scoring averages.

"I told them if you stick together with no egos, you could win," Wyatt said.

The state playoff pairings were released Sunday, and Santa Ana Mater Dei (31-0) is seeded No. 1 in the Open Division and will face San Diego St. Augustine. La Costa Canyon is at Redondo and Westchester at Riverside North.

The only suspense was whether all 16 teams that played in the new Southern Section Open Division would be given state berths and where they would be seeded when put back into their previous divisions. All made it and Chino Hills (Division I), Bellflower St. John Bosco (Division II), West Hills Chaminade (Division III) and Chatsworth Sierra Canyon (Division IV) were given top seeds ahead of section champions.

In the Open Division for girls, Windward was seeded No. 1, Mater Dei No. 2, Long Beach Poly No. 3 and Etiwanda No. 4.

The regional finals will be held March 22 at Citizens Business Bank Arena in Ontario and Ontario Colony High.

eric.sondheimer@latimes.com

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