M. Terry / SFVS

One Win Away — Cavaliers Hadyne Wilson and Caleigh Panzarini, both seniors, lead Cleveland High into the girls’ City Division II final against King/Drew High of Los Angeles.

There’s an atmosphere, a feeling if you will, that permeates the campus of Cleveland High School. One does not come here expecting glamour. Instead, one comes here to work. It’s a constant thread weaving through their athletic programs. The Cavalier team colors are primarily red, but their attitudes are more blue-collar. They won’t necessarily have the most gifted or most prominent athletes around, but they are willing to work and bond with what they have.

That makes it special when success comes their way. Because it’s a success that is earned, not something that just dropped in their collective laps.

The Cavaliers girls’ basketball team is an embodiment of that philosophy. They happily flew under the radar most of the season as a City Section Division II team, playing all their games against teams better, equal or below them with the same mindset: play hard, play calm, play smart. They didn’t always win, but they won more than they lost, as their 17-13 overall record indicates. And now they are at the summit of their biggest moment — playing for the City Division II championship against King/Drew High this Friday, March 3.

They’re not the only Valley team playing for a City basketball championship. Chavez played Hawkins High of Los Angeles on Wednesday, March 1, for a Division IV title (results were unavailable at press time). Van Nuys will play Sotomayor High of Los Angeles tonight, March 2, for a Division III title. Granada Hills Charter will play Crenshaw High of Los Angeles for a Division I championship, and Birmingham will play Westchester High of Los Angeles for an Open Division championship. Both games are on Saturday, March 4 (see box).

Other girls’ teams include Valor Academy playing Aspire Ollin Academy High of Huntington Park for the Division V title on Tuesday Feb. 28 (Valor Academy won, 30-28), and Vaughn, which played Gertz-Ressler High of Los Angeles for the Division IV championship (results were unavailable at press time.)

Friday’s game is the fulfillment of a goal for Coach Raquel Alotis, who took over the program four years ago. It’s a goal that came into a sharper clarity last spring.

“At first I didn’t know how good we could be because the kids take their own journey,” Alotis said. “You never know how quickly they’re going to catch on, how quickly that light switch turns on. But once they get the system, once they get the confidence, there’s incredible growth.

“Now with this group, I knew there was potential. We started talking about a Division II final appearance last April. You’ve always got to set the bar high and aim for it. And as we came into November and December, and I saw what we were doing in the fall was being implemented on the court, I really started digging in deep in December, saying to them ‘this is what you’re capable of this year, and anything less will be unacceptable.’ At that point they really came together. This team has so much chemistry.”

A chemistry that wasn’t quite all there last season, according to players.

“I knew we had a much stronger team [now] than last season,” said guard Caleigh (pronounced Kay-lee) Panzarini said. “During fall league I was in volleyball, so I was only here for the games on Wednesday. But even then I could tell we would go far.”

Panzarini, 17, a senior, admitted there were “cliques” among teammates, and also on the court “our chemistry just wasn’t very good” even though that team reached the Division II semifinals. “The chemistry this year came both from working hard and personalities meshing better.”

Her teammate Hadyne (pronounced Hay-den) Wilson, 17, a senior who has been on the varsity since she was a freshman, has also seen a level of growth and commitment on this team that wasn’t necessarily there in other seasons.

“We’re there for each other, pulling each other up,” Wilson said. “One player can see another do something, and fix anything they need help with. And players are more willing to listen than in previous years.”

Wilson said that defense comes first at Cleveland — “it’s our strong suit.” So it’s no surprise that the majority of their game scores are in the 30’s and 40s. The most points they’ve given up in a loss is 70. The most points they’ve scored in a game they won is 52. They’ve even won a game scoring only 26 points.

But they believe in the way they do things. And they’re now confident in their approach, as has been proven by their playoff wins over Sherman Oaks CES, Dorsey High of Los Angeles, and San Fernando High.

Alotis said she could see that group confidence emerging the last week of West Valley League play, where the Cavaliers finished fourth behind Granada Hills, El Camino, and Birmingham, all three Division I teams who played in the postseason.

“In game situations [the team] was calm, cool and collected,” Alotis said. “At that point the coaches knew we had a chance at a great run in the playoffs.”

The Cavaliers have never won a City Section girls’ basketball title. Besides last season, their most recent deepest playoff run came in 2006, when they lost in the then City (now Division I) semifinals to Dorsey.

They expect King/Drew (14-7) to be a formidable challenge on Friday. Cleveland will show up, play hard all 32 minutes, and see what happens. Should the Cavaliers win, they will probably allow themselves several moments of exhilaration and celebration.

Then they will go home, get some rest, and start preparing for the next game —against whomever, and whenever.

That’s what they do at Cleveland.