The Arleta Mustangs were a great girls’ volleyball story this year. A varsity program, now in its ninth year, that had gone from winning one game in its first three seasons to going undefeated in the East Valley League this year and earning the top seed in the City Section Division III playoffs.
Arleta had not dropped a set in the playoffs and looked every inch the best team — until Saturday, Nov. 21, when the defending champion Verdugo Hills Dons played like, well, defending champions.
Verdugo Hills (15-3), the second seed, denied Arleta a storybook ending at Roybal Learning Center by beating the Mustangs in straight sets, 30-28, 25-15 and 25-23. It marked the third City championship for the Dons in their history, and also provided a fabulous parting gift for the team’s nine seniors who had appeared in four consecutive City division finals.
Arleta ended its season at 20-3-2.
Verdugo Hills Coach Will Reinhart made a point of acknowledging the Mustangs progress.
“First of all, Coach (Steve) Martinez has done a marvelous job with that team,” Reinhart said. “They didn’t have a winning season until last year, so they have come a long way fast. They have character kids and talent.”
But Reinhart, in preparing strategy for the finals, noticed the Mustangs success this season often depended on “power serving and location serving. They didn’t have height. We have height. If we could manage to have enough efficiency in our receiving to allow our height to take a toll, it would and it did.”
Did it ever. Arleta was guilty several times of serving long and out of bounds, and the Mustangs had trouble stretching any lead beyond 3-4 points before the Dons would come back.
The two losses Verdugo Hills sustained in league play to Arleta also turned out to be key, Reinhart said.
“We saw them on Sept. 21 and they beat us 3-0 at our place. We had a month to prepare, and then they beat us 3-2 at their place, so we had clearly closed the space between us. And now it’s 3-0 us today. You look at the arc. We’re swept 3-0, barely lose 3-2, and win 3-0. The trajectory of the season was going our way, not their way.”
Especially valuable to Verdugo Hills was the sister act of Abbey and Clara DiMino, who both measure six feet. Abbey, a junior middle blocker, doesn’t always play above the net but she pummeled the Mustangs defense for 16 kills and served two aces. Clara, a senior middle hitter, had three kills and the only block by the Dons defense.
The best player Arleta had size-wise to neutralize the Dons at the net, senior middle hitter Alejandra Alatriste, was unable to play because of a knee injury.
Also making things tough for the Mustangs was All-City setter Ashley Aglanao, a senior and player-of-the-year candidate for Verdugo Hills, who recorded 27 assists, three aces and a pair of kills.
Staving off three set points and outlasting Arleta in the first set proved to be a huge momentum builder for Verdugo Hills, which then jumped out to a 10-3 lead in the second set and cruised to victory.
Arleta played most of the third set in neck-and-neck fashion. Even when the Mustangs trailed 24-20, they rallied to within a point. But Dons middle hitter Kaylee Rydel, a senior, delivered the championship to Verdugo Hills with the last of her eight kills.
Senior middle hitter Victoria Martinez had seven kills for Arleta.
“From the very first game, I think we weren’t playing very characteristically of ourselves,” Martinez said of his team. “Our serving percentage was way down; we rely on our serving a lot, and today it just wasn’t there.”
Martinez also thought his team’s nerves could have been a factor. This was the first time Arleta had gotten this far in the playoffs.
“I thought our pregame routine was good and we were ready. We knew what Verdugo was going to do. But we made too many mistakes. We didn’t play up to our expectations.”
Abbey said the team wanted to send the seniors out on a high note.
“It felt great to give them something to look forward to and have something from their last game,” she said. “It feels great going back-to-back. I’m so proud, because we all knew we could do it.”