Monte Vista Christian senior guard Angel Martinez has been stepping up as one of the leaders on the Mustangs boys' basketball team this season. (Raul Ebio/The Pajaronian)

Nearing the end of the regular season, the Monte Vista Christian boys’ basketball team has demonstrated its endurance and find themselves leading the pack as the Central Coast Section playoffs approach.

In less than a year, the Mustangs have transformed their previously underachieving record into one of the dominant teams in the Pacific Coast Athletic League Cypress Division, sitting with a 9-3 record in league play.

“We’ve got a really versatile group,” said head coach Abrem Estorga, who is coaching his fourth season at MVC. “We are a traditional man-to-man defense, we score in the low 60s and defend to the mid 40s. We play offensively with tempo and pace.”

After spending the past two years in the PCAL Mission Division, in which last season ended with a 7-18 overall record, the Mustangs have flourished in the Cypress Division.

The transition from other sports, including football back to basketball, was a hurdle for several on the team who are multi-sport athletes. But it wasn’t a problem with a few extra days in the gym.

The primary instigator for the drastic improvement in team success came as a result of player development.

“We have evolved as a better team because now we can rotate the ball and have more players coming in and out,” said MVC senior Angel Martinez. “Our defense is great, we just need to work on some rotations.”

Martinez has helped the Mustangs win this season through physical toughness and intensity, grabbing rebounds and initiating transition offense where the team finds their most success.

With nobody taller than 6-foot-4, the Mustangs have pushed their run-and-gun style of play this year with knock-down shooters like Bryce Brogan, who is ready to push the pace as needed.

Based on the style of play from the other team, Estorga is confident in his team’s ability to score into the 50s or 80s as needed.

“We had some preseason success and it carried over to league play,” Estorga said. “Our team dynamic has changed a lot – we have a really veteran team.”

MVC started its preseason strong with an 82-21 demolition of Trinity Christian in the Mission 831 Tournament.

After a trio of losses throughout the remainder of the preseason, the Mustangs haven’t looked back and currently sit second in the league standings just behind Rancho San Juan High at 11-1.

For MVC, team camaraderie and commitment have been instrumental in bringing back a winning culture to the locker room.

“I think it’s the difference in our strengths that helps us come together, how we’re all good at different things,” senior Jack Ryan said. “We didn’t know what our roles were and this year we know what we need to bring to the court.”

Ryan has been the go-to option for the Mustangs. He is putting up double-double numbers with an average of 10 points and 10 rebounds per game, while also vocally leading his team from the floor.

“When your best player is also your most dedicated and hardest working, that’s a great ingredient for success,” Estorga said of Ryan.

With a team play style reminiscent of the 2017 Golden State Warriors team utilizing positionless basketball with spacing and shooting, MVC has encountered very few teams who can outplay them.

Rancho San Juan’s lone loss in league play came at the hands of the Mustangs.

The Mustangs had a chance to inch closer to at least a share of the Cypress Division crown. But Tuesday night’s 54-45 loss to the Trailblazers set them back with just two games remaining in the regular season.

With the season series split at 1-1, MVC has to win out and needs Rancho San Juan to lose the final two games to capture a league title. 

After going through last season with a small roster of nine players, including just one senior, the Mustangs now have strength in numbers with 13 players—mostly seniors—as well as freshman guard Matteo Vidal.

“We have such a different team from the beginning,” Martinez said. “A lot of players can pass the ball easily and find our targets open all around the court.”

A major blow for the Mustangs occurred when junior point guard Nico Downie suffered a broken foot with several games remaining in the regular season.

His offensive impact at 13.2 points per game will be greatly missed as the Mustangs keep their CCS playoff hopes alive.

“He brought a lot to the table as a great shooter; he’s all over the court and never gets tired,” Martinez said. “We’re going to keep playing for him.”

With just two games remaining before the postseason, the Mustangs hope to maintain their momentum and remain hopeful at securing the top seed in the Cypress division.

MVC will host Soledad High (9-13, 8-4) on Feb. 8, followed by the regular season finale at Greenfield High (9-12, 7-5) on Feb. 12. Both games are slated for a 7pm tipoff.  

“Winning a league championship is always first and foremost,” Estorga said. “We want to represent well in our local league, and then doing our best to advance in CCS.”

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