M. Terry / SFVS

The Five Horsemen — Arleta is leaning on this core group of players for success in the 2015 football season. Back row (l-r): Jesse Hernandez, Malik Crenshaw, Mark Castillo. Front row: (l-r) Isaiah Gable, Sergio Ayala.

Most football fans (and players and coaches) would consider Arleta’s first season under Coach Bill Coan season an excellent one. The Mustangs won 10 of 12 games, claimed another East Valley League championship, and won a City Section Division I playoff game for the first time. Not bad considering Arleta’s only been in Division I since 2011 (and only had a varsity football since 2007).

But some of this road to success is well-trodden turf for the Mustangs. They have dominated the East Valley since 2008, winning five league titles and 40 of 42 league games. What they want to do is match up better with the bigger teams in Division I, something Arleta has not yet done consistently — especially in the postseason.

There is a possibility of that changing this year. Because the Mustangs have muscled up in a crucial area of the team: linemen.

“Last year we were faster. This year we are bigger,” said Coan, before directing the team through a summer workout. “According to (assistant coach London) Woodfin, whose been here a few years, it’s the biggest (group of linemen) we’ve had.

“We did accomplish goals by hosting a Division I playoff game and beating Palisades. Then we went on the road against San Pedro and weren’t successful. A lot of those kids are returning, and now they know what it’s like to play against bigger teams. We’ve worked all off-season on getting stronger up front to compete with them.”

Several offensive linemen who started at least one game are back, starting with Jesse Hernandez (270-pounds), Sean Freire (250-pounds), Edgar Manjarrez (240-pounds), Dan Gutierrez (250-pounds) and Steven Saludes (255-pounds). And add to the mix Mark Castillo (320-pounds) — who mostly played defensive line last season but will play both ways in 2015 — and Gustavo Herrera (280-pounds), a transfer from Fulton Prep.

All that size will help protect new quarterback Sergio Ayala, a junior, up from the junior varsity. He inherits the job from last year’s primary starter Johnathan Porter, who passed  for 1,779 passing yards and 21 touchdowns (against 11 interceptions), and ran for 765 yards and seven more touchdowns.

Ayala may need a couple of regular season games to be fully in tune with the offense. Both Hernandez and Castillo are vowing to keep their new quarterback upright and stress-free.  

“I think we have a lot of potential,” said Hernandez, talking about the linemen. “But it comes down to execution. We have some new people, so we’ve got to make sure they know the schemes and execute everything.

“There’s always things to improve on. But we’ve all known each other since we were freshmen. I played with some of them in Pop Warner, so there is good chemistry. There’s no problem there. We just have to execute our plays and we’ll be fine.”

“It’s a lot of pressure on us,” adds Castillo. “But we’re trying to do everything we can…to protect our quarterback, and for our defense to stop the run.”

Conventional wisdom suggests the Mustangs — having a big, veteran line — would concentrate on the run game, at least in the beginning. Coan said that’s possible. But he was quite pleased by the way Ayala performed at the Antelope Valley Desert Storm Passing Tournament, a summer passing league that Arleta won.

“[The linemen] love to run certain plays — they love to pull and kick-out,” Coan said. “But the way we’ve improved in our summer passing game, I may change my mind a bit and pass some more.”

Ayala, who spent a good chunk of the offseason and summer working on his throwing mechanics, said winning the passing league has boosted his confidence.

“Now I know the tempo of the game that’s varsity,” Ayala said. “I know how quick it is — Coach wants the plays to be called quickly and to put points on the board. … I gained confidence in myself and the players as well. We can build something from those passing tournaments, we don’t just forget about it.”

He has some key skill players to lean on like returning fullback Felix Vega, a senior, who rushed for 646 yards on 92 carries and scored seven touchdowns. He and Arleta are also hoping for a full season from receiver Isaiah Gable, who was restricted to five games — two of them playoffs — due to a fractured left wrist that required surgery.

“I’m hungry for some football,” said Gable. But he also believes the Mustangs are in a better position overall to take on the elite Division I teams. “Since I was a freshman, the program has grown big time. In my sophomore year we moved to Division I. In the first round we played Carson, and that was a big experience for me. They were really big and fast. San Pedro was strong and fast. Hopefully this year we can get past the first and second round because I’m excited about this team.”

Another senior, tight end Malik Crenshaw, is motivated for a big season because he feels he owes it to the program.

“Last year I didn’t ‘show up’ in any of our big games, like Roosevelt. This year I want to show up every game,” Crenshaw said.

“It would mean a lot, be real special [to go past D-I first round]. Last year we won our first Division I playoff game. It would be a huge step to go farther. But let’s take one game at a time.”

Indeed, winning football is not unusual here.

But this group of Mustangs believes it can take Arleta football to level of success it has not reached before.

At least they have the size to get there.