Cleveland football had been sputtering for a couple of seasons but it looked to be back in 2014 when the Cavaliers won their first five games. They would lose all five West Valley League games, however, and then were quickly — mercifully? — bounced out of the first round of the City Division II playoffs by eventual champion Hamilton of Los Angeles.
So it’s understandable if no one in Reseda, or elsewhere for that matter, has gotten too excited about Cleveland winning its first two games this year, including its 44-28 decision against Kennedy on Sept. 3.
But upon closer inspection, something has changed.
For one thing, the players have been in Coach Aubrey Duncan’s system for a full year now, and have a better idea of what to do, and what’s expected.
For another, they’ve actually had chance to practice what the coach preaches.
Duncan didn’t get the job until last July, meaning the Cavaliers did not have any spring conditioning or spring football under him. For awhile they had to practice in a nearby park because the school’s field was unusable.
Having only seven summer weeks to try to learn all the players names, determine their positions and roles, have them learn a new system on the fly, and grow into a cohesive unit before the 2014 season got underway was asking a lot — if not the impossible.
Now there is a clear, concise methodology in place at Cleveland. There is also the support of the direction Duncan has mapped out for Cavalier football.
There is a reason again to believe.
Duncan gives a heaping of credit to the 2014 team for helping prepare those who were returning this year.
“They helped these kids who are here now,” Duncan said. “They set the tone for these guys now. They really did.
“This year we’re way ahead. The kids know all the plays, and they can do a lot more. Everything is totally different. There are some tough teams in our league but I think we’ll compete with them this year. I’m not saying we’ll win all the games, but we can win some.”
Duncan describes himself as a “run-first coach” when it comes to offense. And he has a workhorse back in Isaac Garcia, a sophomore, who has accumulated 255 yards and two touchdowns in 40 carries.
But quarterback Cristayn Macias, a senior, has a talented core of returning receivers to throw to in Felix Achille, Steve Barragan, Hector Bustamante and Harrison Pointer. Achille has filled up the stat page with nine catches for 169 yards and four touchdowns on nine receptions. But a precocious sophomore named Isaac Adams has also worked his way into the rotation, and has 136 yards and two touchdowns in six receptions. “We moved him up from JV and he’s really doing well,” Duncan said of Adams.
But it is current seniors like middle linebacker Gabriel Sanchez and and defensive end Nuruddin Mohammed that not only have a stake in the 2015 season, but want to continue Cleveland’s return to relevancy in the league and in City football.
“My first two years, freshman and sophomore, it wasn’t a great environment,” said Sanchez, 17. “The coaches weren’t great, they weren’t expecting much from the players. But starting last year, the program is being built better. There are better players who want to play more for the school, for the team. There’s a system being built for the future, and it’s all starting now.”
Mohammed, 17, agrees that the football program as a whole “feels more stable. Before, people were looking out for themselves and not each other. But now we are building something. It’s more of a family.”
Both players said losing in the second half of the year magnified the pressures and tensions surrounding the team because there had been so little preparation for the 2014 season.
“In the beginning we had a lot of hype,” Sanchez said. “But toward the end the offense started changing, and not a lot players knew the plays. We had a good quarterback and running back, but the offense was a little tricky. And when an offense isn’t doing too well, the momentum went down and no one was competing like they should.”
Mohammed began to see a reversal of attitude in this year’s spring practice. “I saw more of a push from everybody. People were more serious … (losing the last six games) pushed everyone this off-season to be better than the team before.” At the same time, he said no one was puffing up their chest over the quick start this year.
“We can’t just go soft on a team and think they’re not good enough. Anything can happen,” he said. “The worst team in City could come in and beat us. We cannot become cocky. I think that happened last year. We weren’t humble as a team; going 5-0 we thought we were the best. But then six losses in a row.”
There will be some hype and intensity to this week’s neighborhood clash with Reseda, which wants to believe it is in the midst of it’s own revival. The Regents had won four straight until the Cavs ended that streak last year. Cleveland would like to hang on to their perpetual trophy that goes to the winner of the game, but Sanchez admits his team has other things on its mind alongside the rivalry.
“For us it’s a big game, but not the biggest game,” Sanchez said. “We don’t want to win that game and lose the rest, because then it means nothing. We look to this game to win and keep the trophy, but then look past it to keep competing at a high level. We want to make the playoffs, not just beat Reseda.”
In other words the Cavaliers want to be good against everybody.
How close is that goal?
“If we stay healthy, [we’re] gonna be good,” Duncan said.
The belief is in place. Now the rest has to be proven on the field.