Losing seasons are inevitable in sports no matter how successful a program is. So, perhaps Arleta was due. Before last year the only losing year the Mustangs had suffered was back in 2007 — the team’s first year of varsity football.
That didn’t make the 2016 season any easier to take or endure. It started badly enough when Arleta’s best player, E.J. Gable, was lost for the season because of a fractured left ankle sustained in a summer scrimmage. “You don’t like to have [the loss of] a kid affect the whole team,” Coach Bill Coan said. “But he was our emotional leader, and the kids were bummed about it. We never fully recovered from it.”
And when the regular season started, and the losses grew more and more lopsided, a combination of inertia and indifference put the program in a funk. East Valley League opponents like Grant, Chavez, North Hollywood and Verdugo Hills, which had been regularly tormented by Arleta over the years, took delight in beating up on the Mustangs.
The final record was 4-7, and the only reason Arleta made the City Section Division I playoffs was because the two teams that would have been selected ahead of them decided to opt out of the postseason selection process, and they were admitted by default.
“It was sad. But it does happen,” Coan said in recalling last year. “Since Arleta has been ‘up’ for so long, when we had a ‘down’ year everyone wanted to take advantage of it. I don’t blame them. We’ll remember it but I don’t blame teams for scoring the way they did. They did what they had to do. And it was our fault because we didn’t stop them.”
By the playoff game — an 85-7 loss to eventual City Division I champion Narbonne of Harbor City that was as ugly as the final score — many players couldn’t wait for said season to end.
“It was like ‘no heart,’” said fullback Christian Carrera, 17, a senior. “For some of us that love the game, it was hard to watch because some of the [teammates] were there to [go through] the motions and wear the jerseys. Others are giving their all, but it was hard when you see someone (not playing hard)…”
The 2017 season got off to a much better start. On Aug. 25, Arleta easily rolled up Fremont High of Los Angeles in its opener, 41-6. Gable — who still has several screws in his ankle to keep it stable — scored five touchdowns on runs of 12, 9, 66, 1 and 44 yards. The scatback, who measures 5-5 and weighs 142 pounds, finished with 171 yards in 11 carries. On defense, Gable had an interception that he returned 61 yards.
Mustang fans had to be having flashbacks to when Gable’s older brother Isaiah (now at Sacramento State) was playing for Arleta in 2015 and tearing through opponents for 1,617 rushing yards — the second highest single season total in school history — and 29 touchdowns on the 12-1 team that reached the City Division I semifinals.
But Gable, while very proud of his brother, wants to be known for his own accomplishments on the football field. He’s eager to make up a lost season, and help restore some luster to the program.
“It was very hard last year, not only because we were losing, but also me not playing the game I love to play,” said Gable, 17, a junior. “It was the first time I was injured and could not play the whole season.
“I was a little nervous at first (against Fremont). But after my first carry, it was like ‘okay, it’s go time, I’m really back.’”
Like Gable, the bulk of Arleta’s starters this year are juniors and the best performances of this team may come next year. But Coan doesn’t think this group of Mustangs needs long-term maturation to be competitive.
“It’s nice to see that everyone has a shot in Division I since there is now an Open Division where they’ll take [the top eight teams],” the coach said. “I’m guessing a lot of them will be from the Marine and Coliseum leagues that draw from a different [talent] base.
“But we feel confident. It’s a lot better group here (than last season). We have more depth than last year, and And they seem more energetic in practice. At the end of practice I’m still fired up, where last year I was drained because of the energy I had to put out. I feed off their energy as well they feed off mine. It’s really exciting this year, so far.”
Again, Coan cautions, the Fremont game was just the first game. There are still things to work out. Right now Coan and his staff seek to raise quarterback Victor Espinoza’s efficiency in the passing game. Espinoza completed one throw (in four attempts) for 12 yards in the opener. The passing game was not needed against Fremont, but it will be required as the season wears on.
“(Espinoza) has to be more confident in throwing,” Coan said, adding that the injury Espinoza sustained while playing on the junior varsity last season has slowed his progress. “This is still new to him. We have the receivers. He just has to be a little more confident, and have a comfortable feeling in the pocket.”
Still, getting that first win early did a lot to start washing away the bad memories of the 2016 for Carrera, who rushed for 37 yards in eight carries when he wasn’t blocking for Gable.
“Some people thought it was gonna be the same kind of year again it was last year,” he said. “But we’re here to prove something else. We got all the jitters out. We’re more sure about our linemen now, and everybody has heart now — we want to win. It’s more intense. And it’s a great feeling.”
Gable agrees, effusively praising the offensive line for the way it created space for him to run.
“It could be way better than last year,” he said. “We’re way ahead in our line. Without them we can do nothing. But they’re much faster than last year, more disciplined. They know their stuff. When it comes to game time, they’re ready to put in the work for us to make plays, and give us the time to do what we have to do in the backfield. There’s a big reason to be excited this year.”
Mainly because this year is not last year.