It was looking bleak for City Section basketball fans in the Valley as team after team — boys and girls — was getting knocked out of the playoffs in the semifinal games played this past weekend.

But when all the dust settled, a few area teams did make it to a final. And two of them will play each other.

Arleta High and San Fernando High will determine the section boys’ Division III champion tonight, Feb. 27, at Granada Hills Charter High School. Tipoff is scheduled for 8 p.m.

Adding more intrigue is the fact the teams met last year in the Division IV final, with Arleta pulling out a last-second, one point victory. Trust us, San Fernando has not forgotten.

“People don’t understand how bad we want this,” noted Tigers guard Logan Corral, 17, a senior.

Well, perhaps the Mustangs do.

“It’s going to be a hard game, that’s for sure,” said Arleta guard David Hernandez, 18, a senior.  “It’s going to be a good game, but really crazy. We want it too, so we’re gonna come hard after them.”

A sincere rivalry has evolved between two schools separated by two miles. Since 2013, the teams have split eight games. But grating on San Fernando is the fact Arleta has won the last three, including the nonleague contest on Dec. 19.

 “[The games have] been intense,” said Tigers forward Robert Valdez, 18, a senior. “We’re right next to each other, so we know each other. It’s like you’re battling your older brother or little brother — it feels like that. Everything is close.”

Meaning the Mustangs won’t show up thinking a victory is a foregone conclusion.

“I’m telling my kids that San Fernando is here for a reason, just like we are,” Arleta Coach Jason Hill said. “But our kids are competitive. They know what San Fernando is about. They know this is going to be a tight game, the atmosphere’s going to be electric. There’s no expectations that we’re going to win just because we’re the ‘one’ seed, or what happened last year.” 

The Mustangs — who are 17-9 overall and finished fourth in the East Valley League — received the top seed in the playoff bracket and have played like a top seed, blasting through Canoga Park, and Los Angeles schools Locke and Santee. They have won six of their last seven overall games, dating back to Jan. 29.

Even though Arleta won the Division IV title, they were pretty much a .500 team (15-14) last season. This herd of Mustangs feels more assured about themselves.

“Our chemistry is the biggest difference,” said forward Bryan Marroquin, 16, a junior. “Our playing together has seen a big improvement. We all trust each other, even more than last year.”

Teammate Joshua Morales agrees, but adds winning another title would quiet outside naysayers. “I know some people doubted us last year, and some doubt us this year,” said Morales, 16 a junior. “It motivates us to want to be a better team.”

They have impressed newest teammate Zachary Broadous, who first attended Arleta as a freshman, transferred to Heritage Christian High as a sophomore, but has returned to Arleta.

“They’re all hard workers here. And they’ve been the underdog for quite a while,” said Broadous, 16, a junior. “Last year a lot of people doubted them. But I knew they were hard workers, that the coaching was good.”

The Tigers do not have a winning record (11-16) and finished fourth in the Valley Mission League. The momentum they have now took time to develop.

“We’ve had a bumpy process,” San Fernando Coach Leo Sanders said of the overall season. “We added a couple of new guys, and then some of the football guys came in [after] their playoffs…we’ve been learning as we go. I even told them when we started the season we probably wouldn’t be good early — and we played some tough customers early. But it taught them about dealing with adversity. And I told we would be good. We had the talent; it was a matter of them learning how to play with each other.”

San Fernando was seeded third in the bracket and had a slightly tougher path to the final, defeating high schools Sotomayor, Los Angeles and Jefferson, the No. 2 seed.

But here they are.

“Now, as a team, we’re playing very well — the best we’ve played all year,” Corral said. “In the beginning it was rough because there were new players coming in. We had to become more cohesive as a unit, and that’s what we’ve done.”

So the Tigers and Mustangs will square off, yet again. And even though the game is at Granada Hills High, neither team is expecting only crickets in attendance.

“Last year [the championship game was] at Birmingham and it was a sellout — I believe there were over 200 people who couldn’t get in,” Hill said. “I’m not worried about it being an empty gym. I know the San Fernando fans will show up, and our fans will show up.

“It’s going to be ‘The Battle of the Northeast Valley.’ These kids grew up with each other, have played against other going back to park recreation leagues and all that. It’s going to be a good one.”

Other games involving Valley teams were played Wednesday, Feb. 26: Sun Valley Magnet and Maywood Academy met for the boys’ Division IV championship. In girls’ basketball finals, Verdugo Hills faced Robert F. Kennedy High of Los Angeles in Division IV, and as Monroe High and Maywood CES played for the girls’ Division V championship. Results were unavailable at press time.

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