Unlike Amanda and Erika Guijarro, the Arleta softball coaches, Alexis Cervantes and Lilia Montenegro aren’t twins. BFFs? Oh yeah. Juniors in the classroom and pillars of the Mustangs team, for sure.
The opponents facing Arleta, though, might wonder if right-handed pitcher Cervantes and catcher Montenegro might have a ‘twin thing” going; some preternatural, telepathic connection in the way Cervantes pitches, and Montenegro calls the game.
Cervantes, 17, is having a great 2016 season. She has won all 19 games for Arleta (and has 2 of the three losses), including nine shutouts and one no-hitter.
Montenegro, 16, has been behind the plate for all of it. And she’s not just catching the ball; she’s calling the pitches and positioning the defense. Her maturity and smarts allow the Guijarros to concentrate on other sectors of the game.
If she wasn’t born to play the the position, Montenegro has certainly absorbed the demands of catching ever since donning her first mask and chest protector.
“It’s the leadership aspect,” said Montenegro, in what attracted her to the game’s toughest position. “I get to call pitches, and direct the team so I know where [to set the target for Cervantes] to place the ball.”
The two have been so in sync on the field that Cervantes — who throws 5-6 different pitches at various speeds — says she rarely has to shake off one of Montenegro’s signs.
“She knows what she’s doing so I trust her,” Cervantes said. “She’s an amazing catcher; nothing gets past her.”
Cervantes does benefit from Montenegro’s savvy. But she has also worked on the field (including private pitching lessons) and in the weight room to develop into a solid, all-around player who’s become one of the best in the Valley, if not the entire City Section. In addition to pitching, Cervantes is batting .391 with two doubles, two triples and 20 RBIs.
And the bond with her teammate is made of titanium.
“The relationship has grown strong,” Cervantes said. “We didn’t do much as freshmen. My sophomore year (her first on varsity) is where we started. And we knew we had each other’s backs.”
“We got really close,” Montenegro added. “We hang out. And when we go to college, we want to go together.”
As a sophomore Cervantes was 15-4 with a 1.57 ERA in 21 games and 18 starts. She had 77 strikeouts, and gave up 94 hits and 25 earned runs in 111.2 innings.
Pretty good numbers. But they don’t compare to what Cervantes has done this season.
In 23 total appearances (through May 2), Cervantes has pitched in 21 of the team’s 23 games, totaling 137.2 innings. She’s given up 83 hits and 15 earned runs (0.76 ERA). She has struck out 181 and walked 21, hit three batters and unleashed just one wild pitch.
Some of it comes from Cervantes’ own maturation. As a sophomore, her competitive nature could get the better of her. She could throw strikes but just as often would walk batters and create unnecessary problems.
“I had really wanted to get my spot on varsity. They had another freshmen coming in who was pretty good,” Cervantes said. But an injury ended that player’s career, and Cervantes settled into her role as the ace. And this year she’s pretty much the Mustang pitching staff.
On offense, Montenegro is batting .259 and driven in 10 runs. But offense is not Montenegro’s responsibility. Defensively, she’s sterling; only two errors and one passed ball.
All while calling the game for Cervantes and the Guijarros.
It’s rare that a high school catcher is allowed to call the pitches. But Erika, who was a catcher herself in high school and college, saw something in Montenegro as a freshman that convinced the coach her young player could handle that responsibility even then.
“We brought her to a fall league game, and her reaction and ability to ‘read’ the defense as a freshman, the way she was smart with the batters, told me ‘Man,’ that girl’s going to be our starting catcher,’” Erika said.
“The first couple of games I was calling pitches for her, depending on the situation or where the batter was standing. It got to the point where she knew what I wanted to call. So I let her have the freedom. And this season there hasn’t been one time where I had to say ‘don’t call that pitch again’ or ‘don’t play games, just get strikes.’ She has a good recall about what the batters can or can’t hit, very smart like that.”
“My sister…has been teaching them both how to read the batters and what to do or throw in different situations. Lilia has really become a student of the game, and is responsible for controlling the game. And she has done a tremendous job.”
The 7-0 victory over North Hollywood on Monday, May 2, guaranteed Arleta a share of the East Valley League title. The Mustangs were a game ahead of Poly with a game to play. (Ed. Note: Arleta defeated Poly on Wednesday, May 4, by a score of 4 to 1 to win the league outright).
The Mustangs — who were moved to Division I last year for the first time — now await the City Section playoff bracket seeding, which takes place on Saturday, May 7. They have a shot at an opening round home playoff game. What Amanda Guijarro wants most is to avoid having to again be in a play-in game. That was Arleta’s fate last year. They did win the play-in game against Narbonne, but were then hammered by Granada Hills in round one.
But the head coach also feels her team is better prepared for the Division I postseason that should include traditional Valley powers like defending champion Chatsworth, El Camino Real, Granada Hills, San Fernando and Kennedy, as well as teams like Carson, Lincoln of Los Angeles, and Port of Los Angeles in San Pedro.
“I think if we stay focused, we can make a run,” Amanda said. “We have the tools. Our bats are better and our defense is better than last year. And Alexis wants it this year.”
The players also feel they have a better team this time.
“We’ve taken more time with batting and making sure our throws are [correct],” Montenegro said. “And we’ve taken more time to bond as a team. Of course you may have cliques here and there, but when it comes to Game Day we’re all ‘one.’
“We make it work out,” Cervantes said.
If things work as well for the team as they have for Cervantes and Montenegro as a duo, Arleta could be a handful.