El Camino Real girls soccer keeps City title hopes intact despite loss of star player, training challenges

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There’s been little consistency for the El Camino Real girls soccer team this season. Players have been lost and gained, and an unsafe home playing surface has altered practices and games.

“We’ve all experienced COVID stuff, too. So right from the get-go it’s all been changed,” senior Hayden Bel Bruno said. “The one thing that’s remained the same is our team bond.”

Despite the challenges, the Royals (7-2-3, 5-0) are unbeaten in West Valley League and have yet to concede a goal in a league match. Their objective is winning a City Section Division I championship after falling in the final to Cleveland last season.

They’re working toward that with non-contact practices. The turf the Royals practice on failed an impact test, which means physical contact at soccer practice is prohibited. The surface is still grassy, but the turf beads have melted together in the heat to create hard ground.

Although the team is unable to replicate the physicality that’s experienced in matches, focusing on passing drills has helped El Camino Real achieve their desired style of play.

El Camino Real girls soccer can have non-contact practice on its field, which is scheduled to be redone this spring due to safety concerns. A lot of the turf beads have melded together in chunks, like this one. pic.twitter.com/9ZrRDso3Do

— Haley Sawyer (@haleymsawyer) January 19, 2023

“The way we play, we want to possess the ball,” coach Eric Choi said. “We want to pass the ball, we want to move and for that purpose, this serves us fine just because you can still do that and not have to worry about getting touched.”

Originally, junior Ava Tibor was a part of that game plan. The All-City Section forward and UC San Diego commit scored the Royals’ only two goals in last season’s City Section championship game and was poised for another big year.

Then she tore her ACL during a club game two weeks before the prep season began. Now, she’s embracing studying soccer from the sideline, calming her teammates’ nerves before games and snapping pictures as the team photographer.

“I’m trying to enjoy it. I did not the first week,” Tibor said. “I was a little envious, but then I realized that if they win a City title this year, it’s also me and energy I put into them.”

The Royals had incoming talent to compensate for the loss of Tibor in Julie Lopez, a La Salle transfer and under-17 Mexican National Team player.

Lopez, a Long Beach State commit, adds creativity to El Camino Real’s game at center mid and forward. She couldn’t play a match until the West Valley League opener on Jan. 4 (due to the CIF’s sit-out period for transfers), leaving the Royals to face tough teams like Chaminade, Oaks Christian and Notre Dame of Sherman Oaks without Tibor or Lopez to lean on.

“They learned they can do it on their own,” Choi said. “You have to find a way to grind it out and step up. Players had to step up and take ownership of their team and their year.”

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The trials of the season have made for a unified El Camino Real team, regardless of who is on the field, what practice is like or where the game is. The Royals have had to play every match away or at the Sepulveda Basin Sports Complex due to their home field’s turf conditions, but it’s made little difference.

“We just bring it as a team,” Bel Bruno said. “What’s really helped is having a consistent team. No matter who’s on it, it’s just knowing you always have that support system.”

El Camino Real’s program has won 13 City titles in its history, but hasn’t hoisted the coveted plaque since 2018. The Royals are headed on a crash course with San Pedro (16-1), Fremont (11-0-1) and Palisades (7-1-1) in the City playoffs as things stand with two weeks remaining in the regular season.

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