Arleta High has been a model of consistency ever since the school began playing varsity football in 2007. It has been a perennial East Valley League champion, or contender, and won the City Section Invitational (now Division II) championship in 2008. It has only had two losing seasons overall.
But the Mustangs wouldn’t mind breaking that mold — or at least rearranging it a bit.
Ever since moving into the section’s Division I in 2011, the Mustangs have been denied deep playoff runs primarily because — despite their consistent success — they typically don’t get seeded high enough to get at least an opening round home game. That means they will travel and play another City team that has a higher degree of depth and athleticism than they’ve previously seen. And it has abruptly ended the promising seasons of some talented squads.
The 2019 season, the last full season before the coronavirus pandemic shut down schools, was another frustrating example. Arleta won eight of its nine regular season games and went unbeaten in league play. All that got them was an 11th seed, and the Mustangs had to travel to Los Angeles Westchester High for the first round, and were defeated by the sixth seed Comets, 54-35.
“We’re glad to be in Division I, but we can struggle against teams over the hill,” Mustangs coach Bill Coan said. “San Pedro, Narbonne, Venice, Crenshaw…those can be tough places to go. And we often lack the size and depth of the schools we travel to.”
But Coan loves the continued determination and resiliency of his players, who refuse to be discouraged even when facing long odds or top-level opponents. “We get some hard-nosed kids here, and always 1-2 ‘athletes,’” Coan said.
This attitude, at least, is firmly in place for 2021.
Like most teams, Arleta doesn’t have a full “read” on the upcoming fall season yet because the pandemic, understandably, left high school sports in a state of disarray and uncertainty. And there is no guarantee of avoiding another shutdown if state and county heath officials decide the numbers of new cases and hospitalizations is again spiking dangerously high.
But the Mustangs did play spring football in April — as allowed under the section’s safety protocols — and won its three games handily against North Hollywood, Verdugo Hills, and Grant.
As Coan noted, “We only had three weeks to get ready for a season, and so basically we only used about 20 percent of our offense. The biggest thing was safety, and teaching the proper techniques [regarding] blocking and tackling. There’s only so much you can do over the computer. If you aren’t there physically with the kids, it’s difficult.”
However, for linebacker Ross Cajucam, 16, a junior, the mini-season was quite valuable. The last time he had played organized tackle football was two years ago while a freshman at Hoover High in Glendale, before transferring to Arleta.
“At first I wasn’t expecting to play because of the whole COVID thing, and the change of environment. I had to learn a lot of things on the fly and we didn’t have a lot of time to prepare,” Cajucam said.
“But we got things going and were able to pick up [plays] pretty quickly. And we did pretty well, overall. So I think our team should be doing good this year.”
Cajucam said he has also embraced the “Mustang culture” as well.
“I love it here at Arleta,” he said. “And to be able to play this fall, I’m very excited for this season. Let’s see how our hard work pays off.”
Coan has put together a challenging nonleague schedule that includes the season opener against Granada Hills on Aug. 20 followed by Campbell Hall, which he believes will enable the Mustangs to quickly size up what they’ll need to do before their East Valley games, and then go on that deep playoff run they long to have.
“The kids are extremely confident, and that’s good,” Coan said. “We’ll see where we’re at [early] and what we need to improve on. It’s better to lose early and get better throughout the season. That’s one of our philosophies — wins and losses are important but it’s also about how you compete. The nonleague schedule is set up so we can hopefully progress.”