The moment Arleta right-handed pitcher Manny Cardenas realized he was going to play in Dodger Stadium this weekend for a City Section baseball championship hit moments after he finished beating Locke High of Los Angeles, 2-1, with a complete game effort in the May 27 semifinal at USC.
“It was after getting interviewed by a reporter, and walking out of the dugout there,” said Cardenas, 17. “I realized a dream had come true.”
Third baseman Bailey Magaña had a similar epiphany right after the game.
“It was after the [team] celebration and I was hugging my dad,” said Magaña, 17. “I always talked about playing there, and now it was actually coming true.”
It clicked for second baseman Joseph Barraza while at home with his family after the game.
“We’re all baseball fans, split between the Dodgers and Angels,” said Barraza, 18. “We were eating dinner, and my dad looked at me and said ‘Son, we’re going to Dodger Stadium.’ And I looked at him and had a huge smile on my face and said, ‘We’re going to Dodger Stadium.’
“It was a great moment. I’ve been playing baseball since I was three, and all this work, all the work my teammates and I put in, it’s all paying off.”
The three seniors, their coaches and supporters can believe it. Arleta (15-17) will play for the City Division II title at Dodger Stadium on Saturday, June 3, against the Los Angeles Center for Enriched Studies (LACES). It will be the first of two championship games; Chatsworth and Birmingham are scheduled to play at 1 p.m. for the Division I title.
Arleta and LACES met previously this season back in February, in a tournament. LACES won that one by a 4-1 score. But there’s an even better historical nugget. LACES and Arleta played for the City Small School (now Division III) baseball championship back in 2007. LACES won a 4-3 decision in eight innings.
The Mustangs, under-standably, aren’t just happy to be here; they’re in it to win it. But that doesn’t mean Arleta can’t appreciate the journey it took to get to the 2017 final.
The Mustangs began the playoffs as the 14th seed. They had to win the play-in game against Fairfax of Los Angeles on May 11, and have gone on to defeat No. 3 South Gate, No. 11 South East of South Gate, and No. 2 Locke in succession — all as the road team.
It makes Arleta the lowest Division II seed to reach the title game since Chavez was the 19th seed in 2015. The Eagles won their play-in game against Contreras High of Los Angeles before going all the way to the final, losing the championship game to Lincoln High of Los Angeles.
“A 14th seed playing at Dodger Stadium,” mused Coach Victor Zamora. “I told them at the beginning of year they could win — win a tournament, win the league or play for a championship. ‘I know you guys have it in you.’ And now they have the confidence.
“We weren’t expected to be [in the final]. There’s no pressure on us. This is a moment you may not have again. But if they give 100 percent, no matter what happens I’ll be happy with it, win or lose.”
Zamora and key assistant Jose Avila — “we’re really co-coaches,” Zamora said — represent the fourth varsity baseball staff Arleta’s gone through the past five years. The duo, who came to Arleta last year after previous stints at North Hollywood High and Burroughs High in Burbank, spent most of the 2016 season shepherding the Mustangs through a 4-18 rebuilding year while convincing the team they weren’t going to abandon them as soon as the school year ended.
“Last year … their expectations might not have been high,” Avila said. “As the year progressed, the kids saw we (wanted to be here). And they started to believe that, and that they could play with other teams.”
The progress this year came slowly but steadily. And after the team had some success in a spring tournament in San Diego, a crucial corner was collectively turned.
“In the beginning of the season…errors killed us,” Magaña said. “The San Diego tournament showed us we could compete with top teams on the field, no matter how small we are. In San Diego we realized we’re good enough to compete with any team they put in front of us. Heart is what matters.”
The Mustangs eventually finished fifth in the East Valley League. But they also felt that if they got into the playoffs, they could compete.
Cardenas said the team didn’t care where they seeded. “We were excited we had a chance to go to the playoffs,” he said. “We got an opportunity and we’ve taken advantage.”
“They are resilient,” Zamora said of his team. “Right now they’re doing this for them. Right now it’s a band of brothers. It’s satisfying for me.”
The Mustangs are enjoying their longest winning streak of the season — four games — and it couldn’t have come at a better time. They respect LACES, but don’t fear the 16-10 Unicorns. They plan on making it a memorable day at Dodger Stadium; who knows if they will ever step on its field as players again.
Winning on Saturday won’t be easy, not after the way LACES dismantled Roybal Learning Center of Los Angeles, 12-0, in the other May 27 semifinal game.
But Arleta will have a chance. That’s all it wanted.