A Season (That Could Be) On The Brink

M. Terry / SFVS 

Waiting to Exhale — Mustang teammates Itzel Sanchez (top) and Beatrice Pena, both seniors, are hopeful their 2018-19 basketball season will not be interrupted.

The Arleta High girls’ basketball team has been going through a bit of a rough patch lately, losing three of its last four games during the holiday break. But that is always possible with holiday tournaments that can require three or four games in a four-day period, like the recent Legacy High Tournament in Southgate that the Mustangs participated in. And even the very best teams have hills and valleys over the course of a season.

Coach Erika Guijarro wasn’t sure in the beginning what was possible for this edition of Mustangs, even though the team has 13 seniors on its 15-player roster (the other two being juniors). But this group, having played collectively together the past two seasons, now knows how to play as a unit and how to play a successful style.

“To be honest I didn’t expect too much,” Guijarro said. “But after the fall schedule, I felt the team could do something — we could win the league, maybe get out of the first round of playoffs. That would be a key step.

“Last year we had no business being in D-I so I put us in tough tournaments [this season] to show we maybe didn’t belong in D-I. But we’ve done okay. We did well with what we had.”

Arleta may not have great height or length. But the Mustangs are not afraid of playing tough competition, and its 11-9 overall record — which includes victories over North Hollywood High, Marshall High of Los Angeles, East Valley League rival Poly High and, most recently, Crossroads High of Santa Monica — bears that out.

But that could change. The teachers union — United Teachers of Los Angeles (UTLA) — has been threatening to strike because its contract talks with the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) have dragged on for nearly two years. It would be the first such strike since 1989.

The strike was initially set for today, Jan. 10, but now has been postponed until Monday, Jan. 14. Union and district officials were still in contract talks on Wednesday.

While schools would remain open during a strike, and some after-school programs would continue, the LAUSD Interscholastic Athletics office sent out a memo to all LAUSD principals on Monday, Jan. 7, stating that all practices and games would be completely shut down if there was a strike, and for the duration of said strike. (Charter schools like Birmingham, El Camino Real, and Granada Hills could still practice or play in games because charter schools have a separate union contract.)

Once the issue is resolved school principals could agree to either reschedule games lost to a strike prior to the end of the regular season (Feb. 1) or declare a ‘no-contest,’ meaning the games never existed and there would be no forfeits.

“I’m hoping they settle something,” said Guijarro, a UTLA member. “I’m at the point where I’ve invested a lot in this team. It’s not fair to them. I’ve had the majority of them for four years, especially my point guard. To take this away from them….”

She doesn’t finish the sentence. She doesn’t want to finish the sentence.

Guijarro will admit to this being a unique team to her. “Most of them weren’t basketball players. They had to learn the game. Some of them…were thrown into games. But they rose to the occasion. Some of the kids I thought would never get playing time, but they have surprised me. They’ve learned and they’ve worked hard.”

Two seniors  — Itzel Sanchez and Beatrice Pena — are the heart and soul of Arleta.

Sanchez, averaging a team-best 17.9 points, grew up playing basketball in park recreation leagues. Despite her seemingly diminutive 5-2 frame, she has played on the varsity all four years here. She will finish her career as the school’s all-time leader in just about every significant statistical category — including rebounding.

“The last two years she has carried the team,” Guijarro said of Sanchez. “She’s the kind of player who [constantly] works on her game. If I don’t have film up an hour after a game we just played, she will call me.”

Becoming a stat monster wasn’t on Sanchez’s agenda when she arrived at Arleta. “As a freshman, my goal was to just play, because I know a lot of freshmen don’t come in and play,” she said. “My goal was just to make varsity. It wasn’t about breaking records at the school. But it’s pretty cool.”

Sanchez is holding out hope a settlement can be reached or that any strike could end quickly enough to salvage the season.

“I won’t believe [a strike] until it happens. The three weeks [of holiday break] where we had tournaments, I tried to go all out because I knew [the Monroe game] might be our last league game. It [stinks]; I didn’t see my senior year ending like that. At the same time, what else can you do?”

Pena, who also plays volleyball and softball, didn’t play basketball when she came to Arleta as a freshman. But she has steadily worked to learn the game and has evolved into a valuable asset both offensively and defensively, averaging 9.4 points 4.8 rebounds and 1.8 steals.

“My freshman year I was scared to come out to the varsity team,” Pena said. “I didn’t know as much as the other girls. ‘I can’t do what they do, ugh.’ But I started pushing myself to go to the parks and play, have people help me out. And I started liking the game, becoming better.”

Pena hopes she and her teammates will not be fractured by events out of their control.

“We have to stick together as a family, no matter what happens,” she said. “Even if we have to run our practices at the park — we never know when it could end so we have to keep going. Because we still want our season to keep going.”

So does Guijarro.

“The majority of them I’ve had since they were freshmen,” the coach said. “You want to see them succeed. I can’t imagine if I worked hard for four years and have it taken away…you know, for them it’s more than just basketball.”

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