The current reward/failure athletic system in City Section sports that can realign teams through its various competitive divisions on a yearly basis can be a blessing and a curse for football programs like Arleta High.
The Mustangs have only been playing 11-man varsity football since 2007. (The school first opened in 2006.) But beginning with its first head coach Jeff Engilman, then continuing under Dan Kelley and currently under Bill Coan, Arleta has built up a reputation of “playing bigger than we are,” quarterback Jose Tejeda notes with a touch of pride.
That can be great for that one super season or playoff run, when there are enough players that also have the big bodies to go with the big hearts. But it can be hard to sustain in City’s Division I; only a few programs — most notably defending Open Division cham-pion Narbonne of Harbor City — keep a steady stream of top-tier and college-ready talent flowing every season.
Arleta has spent the last seven seasons in Division I, and has had good, fair, and almost great teams. But the Mustangs have not earned a championship chip since winning the City Invitational (now Division II) title in 2009. Last year was a good year — 8-4 overall and being undefeated in the East Valley League (6-0-0). Still, the 54-0 loss to San Fernando High in the Division I playoff quarterfinals was crushing, at least on the scoreboard.
The year before, the Mustangs were 12-0 going into the semifinals but couldn’t keep up with Crenshaw High of Los Angeles, losing 26-17.
That semifinal marked the furthest any Arleta team has gone in the Division I playoffs. It’s as if there is a point Arleta can go, but go no further against the best City D-I teams.
This season the Mustangs are back in Division II. It’s a move which, if nothing else, gives Arleta a breather to reconfigure its program’s depth and strength, and then petition to (or be automatically) moved up again when it is able to fairly compete against the bigger guys.
The move might also give Arleta a legitimate look at a 2018 City championship game appearance in late November.
“In Division I, we were okay,” said Coan, who’s entering his fifth season. “It wasn’t like we were getting blown out every year; we just had one bad year. So we’ll see how it goes…numbers-wise, it’ll be interesting to see what we do.
“I liked Division I. But it doesn’t matter. At Chatsworth, I won in Division II. We’re still gonna play a top D-1 team (Venice), so we’ll get a taste. And we also play Eagle Rock…they’re kinda like us. They’re gonna realigned every year like us — be good in D-II and maybe struggle a little bit in D-1.”
Unfortunately for the Mustangs, their most explosive offensive player, running back E.J. Gable — who rushed for 1,465 yards and 25 touchdowns — decided to transfer to Sierra Canyon High.
But there is other talent. Tejeda, who shared the quarterback duties last season with Victor Espinosa, has the job all to himself. (Espinosa also decided to transfer, and is now at Cleveland High.) Tejeda has proven targets to throw to in wide receiver Damien Sanchez and tight end Gio Gonzalez. And Tejeda, more of a running quarterback, is spending the summer becoming a better thrower.
He said that while the players initially were lukewarm to the idea of going back into Division II, there now is a genuine excitement about what’s possible this upcoming season.
“We have a lot of confidence,” said Tejeda, 17 a senior. “We have most of our offensive starters coming back. There’s a few on the O-line who left because they were seniors. But we know the system; we can hit the ground running offensively.”
Nurturing that confidence in Tejeda and others is center Jonathan Macias, a three-year varsity starter, who sees the team continuing on an upswing.
“I remember my first year of varsity. That was not the greatest team,” said Macias, 17, a senior. “We had some trouble; there were simply too many issues. It wasn’t a talent thing, but we weren’t at our best. Last year was a lot better — I’d call it rebuilding, but we were a way better team than two years ago.
“I think this group has a lot of potential. There is a lot of young talent that’s coming up from last year. We have lost a lot of seniors, but I see a lot of talent in the younger guys. And it’s time for them to step it up.”
It all begins for Arleta at Los Angeles High on Aug 17. League play begins in September against Grant High, expected to be the Mustangs’ main competition for the East Valley title although Coan certainly does not discount Chavez — “they really play ‘up’ for us” — Monroe, North Hollywood, Poly and Verdugo Hills.
Ten games to shape a destiny and establish credibility.
“Our [nonleague] season is still three D-1 schools and one D-2 school,” Coan said. “Grant is still D-I…for us every game is a playoff game, because it dictates what we do in the playoffs and where we’re seeded.”
And if the Mustangs do reach the postseason, there shouldn’t be any obviously impossible obstacles to try and navigate.