M. Terry / SFVS

They’re Bringing Cleveland Back — Seniors Michael Wade (left) and Wayne Currie, and junior Demarko Flanagan, have the Cavaliers headed to a winning season after two subpar years.

It was the Orange Division championship game of the Huntington Park Invitational holiday tournament, and Cleveland High was muddling through against San Pedro. The Cavaliers were trailing 29-24 at the end of the first half, and appeared uninterested in or unable to catch up to the Pirates for whatever reason — the fatigue of playing four games in six days, being out of sync offensively, or even falling into the old comfort zones the past couple of years of expecting to lose. Fans of the team would not have been surprised if all three options were in play.

But these Cavaliers have been taken over by a new coach Dave Goosen, and have a reconfigured sense of self. Cleveland came out in the third quarter looking more focused and energized; by the end of the quarter, the Cavs had caught the Pirates at 40. They would fall behind by six, 53-47, with 2:22 remaining but Cleveland rallied again to force overtime — make that two overtimes — and eventually claim a 73-67 victory.

After wearing down Hollywood High, 78-62, on Monday, Jan. 11, Cleveland sports a 16-5 overall record and six-game winning streak entering West Valley League play. In a league loaded with fellow City Section Division I heavyweights like Taft, El Camino Real and Birmingham, conventional wisdom suggests the Cavs should be happy if they win maybe three or four games over the next month.

Except Cleveland is no longer thinking conventionally or haphazardly. The Cavaliers are already guaranteed their first winning season since 2010-11, and may get their first 20-victory season since 2008-09. Goosen who won’t let them think in “R-word” terms, such as “rebuilding” or “reclamation.” This 2015-16 season is more of a “redemption” tour.

Goosen came to Cleveland from VAAS (Valley Academy of Arts and Sciences) in Granada Hills, where he helped build its basketball program starting in the school’s first academic year in 2010-11, and went 54-25 in its first three varsity seasons. While Goosen felt his success at VAAS would give him credibility with the Cleveland team, he did not want to come in the first year and completely start over.

“I took over a team that had a decent amount of experience, with several players returning from varsity last year. I felt we needed to change the attitude and the culture, get them used to winning again,” Goosen said.

“I believe that it doesn’t matter what [schemes or systems] you run, you have to execute and play hard. If you do that, you will be successful. You can have the greatest offense and defense in the world, but if you don’t play hard it won’t matter. So [the coaching staff] first got them to buy into playing hard, and then into our system.”

Some Cavs like guard Michael Wade, a senior and three-year varsity player, were eager to accept Goosen’s methods and message from Day One.

“I was willing to listen to what he was saying because our past coaches didn’t really lead us on the right path. I felt this was my final chance, that I had to buy into it,” Wade said.

Wade said he liked the “intensity” that Goosen brought to practice, along with a willingness to immerse himself into the process. “He gets involved with us way more than any other coach I’ve had. He’s really active, does conditioning with us. He won’t ask you to do anything he won’t do.”

Other returning players like forward Demarko Flanagan, a junior, took longer to persuade.

“Actually I only bought in a couple of weeks ago,” he admitted. “Before, I was kinda frustrated by my minutes; I felt I could produce a lot on the offensive end. I didn’t feel he was utilizing me that much.”

But Flanagan — who has finally recovered from a high left ankle sprain in the summer that slowed him into the fall —  admits what Goosen is preaching was missing from previous Cleveland teams.

“The defensive intensity has changed a lot,” he said. “I think he has emphasized defense and hard work more, playing hard and to execute. And it all starts on the defensive end. When we do that, our offense begins to feed off our defense.”

Flanagan adds that “we didn’t have as much talent last year. Now…we had some good players, we got some transfers in here, we got a [new] coach and the whole system changed.”

One key transfer is Wayne Currie, a senior, who came to Cleveland from Dorsey High in Los Angeles. Currie, who was the Orange Division MVP in the tournament, has become the team’s barometer: as Goosen puts it, “he’s our leader in terms of if he plays well, our team plays well.”

Currie said he and his new teammates “have gelled” quicker than expected. “I did notice that after the second or third game, we started finding each other, had more confidence in each other,” he said.

Impressing Goosen was a harder sell.

“I thought the new coach would be tougher because I had to adjust how he wanted me to play. Usually with new players, you can get a feel for each other and adapt more easily. The coach, you have to do what he wants you to do.”

Whether imbibing the Kool-Aid or awesome sauce, the Cavs are collectively in it to win it. But now, with league play, the season shifts in importance. (The results of Cleveland’s Jan. 13 road game at Birmingham were unavailable at press time). The Cavaliers — who next face Chatsworth on Friday, Jan. 15 — have 10 games to show how legitimate their improvement is. And every game should be a worthy test.

“I truly believe our league is the best in City basketball,” Goosen said. “I think the three best are the West Valley, the Coliseum and the Western leagues. But our league is the best from top to bottom. Our mid- and bottom-tier teams are better, and our top teams (Taft, ECR, Birmingham) are just as good as the best in City.

“There are no easy games in our league. Granada Hills played for the D-I title last year. Chatsworth always has athletes and plays hard, the type of team that is capable of beating anybody. It makes our league really though, and wins tough to come by. On a positive note, you have to prepare for every game, so there is no letdown; no chance to overlook anyone.”

Flanagan and Wade can’t wait.

“I feel like we are going to be able to compete,” Flanagan said. “We’re not a joke this year. Not that we were a joke last year, but I feel teams will have to take us a little more seriously based on what people told me about us. I feel we can be good this year.”

“In the playoffs we’re going to be a contender,” Wade promised.

And the new guy?

“We haven’t played any teams from league yet,” Currie said. “I do know there’s a lot of good competition in this league. It got really stronger from last year…but I’m excited. I think we can make things happen, and shock people.”

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