The breakthrough moment for the Cleveland Cavaliers football team in 2017 actually began with a loss — in the very first game.
The final score of that Aug. 25 contest, against Palisades Charter High was 37-28 in favor of the Dolphins. But as the Cleveland players look back on it now, the game and the way they played in it provided something they hadn’t felt in awhile — belief and hope.
“We just came out strong, taking care of business,” said wide receiver Isiah Adams, 17, a senior, “We slipped toward the end; we were tired and had some injuries. But I knew then we were good.”
“Even though we ended up losing that game we felt nothing could beat us,” said Isaac Garcia, 17, a senior who plays running back and linebacker.
The belief proved to be worthy, and was eventually rewarded.
The Cavaliers, seeded fourth in the City Section Division II playoffs, have reached the semifinals after beating University High of Los Angeles last week, 47-27. They get their chance to knock off Eagle Rock High, the top seed, this Friday, Nov. 24, at Eagle Rock High School. The kickoff is scheduled for 7 p.m.
Cleveland (7-5) has won three straight games and five of its last six, and is arguably playing its best football at present. But the Cavs have played good, competitive football period this season while toiling in the shadows of other West Valley League teams like Birmingham and El Camino Real.
Perhaps we should have been watching closer. The clues were there.
Last season the Cavaliers only won three games overall and none of them were in league. This season they’re currently 7-5 overall, and finished third in the West Valley at 3-2. In fact, the win over Taft on Oct. 13 snapped a 21-game losing streak in league play, dating back to the 2013 season.
Head Coach Matt Gentle, in his second full season, said he and his staff are now getting the results they felt the team was capable of producing in 2016.
“The kids are more familiar with our system,” Gentle said. “And the coaches look at it as ‘we have good players, so a good plan would work.’ It was frustrating last year. We thought we had a good team, but it had not come together. They were the kids we had on JV. But it was still a process we needed to go through.”
There is a unique closeness on the Cleveland coaching staff. Only one of the seven assistants — Clyde Griffin, 31, — is older than 30. The average age is 26.8 years; Gentle, himself, is 27.
And practically all of them graduated from City high schools. Gentle, Terry Hill, D.J. Stephens, and Allan Brooks went to Kennedy. Khalil Paden and Griffin went to Cleveland. Eddie Kelly went to Arleta. The only “outlier,” so to speak, is Brandon Lee, who went to Lawndale.
“We all played City ball in high school,” said Gentle, who was first hired at Cleveland two years ago to coach the junior varsity, and replaced Aubrey Duncan as the varsity head coach in the final game of the 2015 season.
“We’ve [coaches] known each other for eight years. We all hang out. We all know what we want. We want to bring City football back to where it used to be.”
He said he was grateful that “the players gave me respect” from the beginning. “We had a common goal in mind: to win,” Gentle said. “That was the first goal. The other goal — ‘Change The Culture,’ which became our motto. We, the coaches, had to get the kids to believe it. Now they’re starting to expect to win. Before, it was ‘it’s just another game.’”
The players freely admit they have connected with this coaching staff better than with others more recently at Cleveland.
“The energy that they bring is something different than we had from our other coaches,” Garcia said. “They talk to us all the time — not just how we’re doing but how’s class, etc. Any problem we have we can go talk to them.”
“I had faith in [Gentle], seeing how he took to the JV team, and how they were playing hard,” Adams added. “I just knew when he came up to be the varsity coach it would be the same thing.”
Perhaps the most critical conversion by Gentle so far was convincing Takashi Drayton, an excellent defensive back, to move to quarterback last year. Drayton, 17, a senior, admitted he resisted the change at first — “I didn’t feel comfortable, and I didn’t know how to take the pressure of losing the game, or just messing up” — and even considered transferring at the end of his junior season.
After talking with Gentle and his mother, Drayton decided to stay. And he is happy he did.
“[Probably a combination of] maturity and getting comfortable,” Drayton said. “I do want to be a leader. And I like these guys.”
The Cavs will certainly face a strong challenge in Eagle Rock (11-1), whose only loss was to Fairfax High of Los Angeles back on Sept. 15.
The Eagles have won eight consecutive games since then and have been lighting up scoreboards as if they were pinball machines. They’re averaging 40.6 points per game, twice have scored 70 points, including last week against outmanned South East High of South Gate. Quarterback Davy Stone, a senior, has thrown for 2,755 yards and 29 touchdowns. He has three receivers with at least 700 receiving yards in the Eagles’ high-flying passing attack.
“We can’t take anything for granted against Eagle Rock, and have to play our best,” Drayton said.
This could potentially be a big weekend for the Valley area teams remaining in the City playoff semifinals.
In Division I, top seed San Fernando High gets a chance to avenge last year’s first round playoff loss to Garfield High of Los Angeles, the fourth seed.
Verdugo Hills High, the fifth seed, hosts Monroe High, the ninth seed, with the winner guaranteed a berth in the Division III final. And sixth seed Granada Hills Charter High, which upset No. 3 Reseda High last week, continues on in the Division II bracket against Huntington Park, the second seed.
Cleveland won’t mind some of the spotlight for itself.
Perhaps now the Cavaliers are ready for a closeup.