M. Terry / SFVS

No Horsing Around — Mustangs (l-r) Alex Pleitez, Michael Robertson, Herman Torres, Jr., James Ochoa and Issac Nogales want to take Arleta High deeper into the playoffs.

It’s not easy or simple to just be a “good” program in City Section football these days with the perpetual shifting back and forth of teams through its various divisions as a method to promote competitive equity.

A “good” season can elevate a team into a higher division it might not be equipped to perform in the following season. That’s the current scenario facing Arleta, which is presently listed in Division II. But having won eight games and reaching the quarterfinal round of the Division II playoffs in 2018 could be enough to get the Mustangs moved up to Division I. The team won’t know its fate until after the coaches’ meeting next week. And they’re not the only program unsure of its 2019 status: Grant High and Franklin High of Los Angeles could also potentially be Division I teams.

Wherever Arleta winds up, the Mustangs will show up. Because they are eager to play football again, if only to rid themselves of the bad memories of how the 2018 season ended last November.

They were trailing Locke High of Los Angeles in the quarterfinal playoff game, 28-21, but reached the Saints’ 2-yard line with a chance to tie. The ball was given to James Ochoa, who had already rushed for more than 200 yards and two touchdowns. But he was stopped short of the end zone on the game’s final play.

“That is going to stick with me for a long time,” said Ochoa, a senior, who turned 17 on Wednesday, July 17. “It was the last play of the game. It haunts me to this day.”

Ochoa has nothing to apologize for. He had an amazing junior season in 2018, with 1,962 yards and 25 touchdowns rushing, and had another four touchdowns as a receiver. He accounted for almost half of the team’s 5,082 total all-purpose yardage.

“That [output] was a surprise and we were very happy for it,” Mustangs Coach Bill Coan said. “He does a unique thing when he’s tackled: he rolls and bounces up. He does take hits but he does take care of himself. He’s extremely smart. He also has great vision — he sees things and cuts back when he runs. That’s kinda hard to teach.”

But the Locke finale wasn’t the only defeat that continues to irritate the returning players. The only loss in the East Valley League was to eventual champion Grant High — a 49-0 loss where, as Coan put it, “everything we did was wrong.”

Senior lineman Issac Nogales, 17, stated flatly that the team was not mentally prepared.

“We came in with the mentality that we [just had to show up to win],” Nogales said. “What happened, happened. But that loss also brought us together. The next time we got on the field we knew what we had to do to make it better.”

He said the team learned to “take it game by game. You prepare yourself and only think about that game that week.”

Wide receiver Herman Torres, Jr., 17, declared that his senior year this season is about “getting everyone ready. We’ve been through a lot together — especially the Locke game — that’s getting us ready for this year.”

Senior Alex Pleitez, who turns 17 in August and is one of two quarterbacks Coan plans to utilize, added the team has “a different bond” going into the 2019 season. “We are way closer than we were in previous years. You can feel it on the field. We’re pushing each other harder this year, running faster, finishing through the conditioning.”

Even though the conditioning and early workouts have been spirited, Coan said the message about maturation he and his staff are trying to impart also seems to be taking hold.

“Whatever we teach, we also teach as life lessons as well,” the coach said. “Last year in our last game we didn’t finish. Locke was a few yards better than us and had a lot of talent. But we felt we could compete with them; we just couldn’t finish.

“For our kids, we started this motto in January: ‘The more work we put in in January, the farther we’ll get later in the year.’”

The unified single-mindedness of the Mustangs will be critical for the nonleague schedule — that begins Aug. 23 against visiting Los Angeles High, and includes difficult tests like St. Genevieve High — and then league play where rivals like Grant, Chavez and Monroe await.

“I think we can win more this year,” Torres said. “We have the talent for it. And we want to make it farther in the playoffs.”

That’s about as close as the Mustangs will get to public declarations. The 2019 season is going to be more about making sure the team is ready mentally and physically geared for that week’s game — not just showing up or showing out.

Junior running back/receiver Michael Robertson, 16, puts it this way.

“Just gotta catch the ball and run with the ball. Just play the game.”