The City Section girls’ basketball season has nearly reached the halfway point, with league play now front and center. And the Arleta Mustangs find themselves moving at a fast pace.
Arleta was 14-5 overall, and 2-0 in the East Valley League going into Wednesday’s game against visiting North Hollywood. (Final results were not available at press time.) This 2016-17 edition of the Mustangs is not big but instead sleek, ready to press and run teams all day until they lose their desire to keep up.
The concession to playing “small ball” is a source of quiet amusement to Coach Erika Guijarro. “A lot of teams like to copy the Golden State Warriors (and play small), but I’m a Clippers fan,” she said. “I still believe in the big players.”
But even if the female equivalent of DeAndre Jordan or Blake Griffin ain’t walkin’ through the front door of the Mustangs’ gymnasium, this is still shaping up to be Guijarro’s best team since she took over as head coach in 2009.
Not that last year’s team was shabby. The Mustangs were 18-12 overall, third in the league behind Poly and North Hollywood, and reached the Division II semifinals against North Hollywood. (The Huskies won, went on to win their first City championship by beating Venice in the final, and subsequently were moved up to Division I.)
Even without dominant height — small forward Esmeralda Munoz, a junior, is the tallest listed player at 5-8 — Arleta has been competitive in nearly every game its played this season save a couple of early large losses to Viewpoint of Calabasas and Village Christian during the Conquistador Classic tournament at El Camino High in December. More apparent to Guijarro, this team has a blend of maturity and talent that could enable it to make another deep playoff run, perhaps with better results.
“This is probably the best team I’ve had,” Guijarro said. “I think we’re more athletic this year, and a lot of the girls have been together for three years. It’s the culmination [of skill and maturity].”
She offers a quiet smile. “We don’t have strong post play this year because none of my girls will stay in the post — they like to spread the floor and shoot the three, or drive to the basket — but we do have more athleticism.”
They’re also feeding off the motivation from losing that semifinal game to North Hollywood.
“We all have a goal in mind to become a champion,” said Julie Peralta, the team’s leading scorer. “Last year we were so close. I definitely think [the loss was] motivation — and payback to get what we want.”
Peralta, 17, a senior, — “our backbone the past three years,” Guijarro said — may stand only 5-4. But she has improved her scoring totals every season since joining the varsity midway of her sophomore year, rising from 12 points in 2014-5 to 15.6 points in 2015-16 to her current rate of 21.1 points this season. “She likes to shoot,” said Guijarro, “but she’s also put in the work,” noting that Peralta has spent many hours in the gym refining her game.
Peralta also has a compatible running mate in sophomore guard Itzel Sanchez, who is averaging 9.3 points, 4.1 assists and an impressive 5.3 steals a game. The pair have been almost telepathic in executing the top portion of the Mustang’s full-court press.
“A lot of Julie’s points are from Itzel getting her the ball,” Guijarro said.
Sanchez, 15 said that Peralta is the unquestioned leader of the Mustangs and a calming influence on the team — especially for her — in the games.
“I grew up playing with guys, which was way different than playing with girls,” said Sanchez, who measures 5-2. “My aggressiveness kinda shows on the court. I get mad a lot, but that just shows my passion for the game. But Julie is the leader on the court. I look up to her the most. She’s always talking to me — if I get a foul she’ll say ‘Itsey stop, you can’t get more fouls.’ We’re always talking and she’s always positive about the game.”
Peralta also sees a collective maturity that is serving Arleta well.
“We grow together because we practice and work together,” she said. “We’re always communicating. We push each other to make sure we play our best — not just on the court but off the court. We all matured by giving simple ideas to each other, working together, and having a good time.”
Guijarro has a balancing act to perform with the Mustangs. She was happy the team “wanted to go right back to work” after losing to North Hollywood in the playoffs last year. But she does not want their “passion” to turn into “urgency,” or something more consuming.
“When I think of ‘urgency,’ when we talk about that, it can make them nervous and feel like they have to do something so they start forcing things,” Guijarro said. “I’d rather they feel ‘passion,’ because they’ll just push to work hard.”
Still, Guijarro feels this is a group she can work and drive over the rest of the league season. She’s not afraid to speak to them of reaching goals or aspiring greatness.
“We’re looking at two championships,” Guijarro said. “My first goal is league. We have all these banners up here, and there’s [no banner for] girls’ basketball. Our first step is a league championship, so they have that experience. We always take second in something — second in tournaments, in league. League is important to us.
“But the City championship is the biggest goal. And I feel we have the opportunity and chance to win it.”