M. Terry / SFVS

Hungry For A Title — The Cleveland High Cavaliers, led by seniors Joseph Achonu, Andrew Ayala and Jalyne McFall (l-r) are in hot pursuit of a City championship even after moving to D-1 football this season.

Two minutes.

That’s how close the Cleveland Cavaliers were to a first ever City football championship last year. They held a 14-12 lead on Huntington Park in the Division II title game until the Spartans came up with the winning touchdown with two minutes left to play.

That put a damper on the Cavaliers’ 8-6 season in 2017. But, thanks in part to a spirited playoff run that included the remarkable 55-54 overtime shootout victory against Eagle Rock High in the semifinals, it felt like a veil was lifted from the Cleveland program. It was the team’s first winning season since 2009. The Cavs also ended a 21-game losing streak in West Valley League play.

“It was important to get to the championship game last year; now I know what that feels like,” said Jalyne McFall, 16, a junior who earned Division II All-City second team recognition for the 2017 season. “Now I want to go back [to a championship game] and win.”

Among the questions facing an up-and-coming Cleveland team in 2018, the biggest one is probably this one.

How do the Cavaliers sustain the hard-earned momentum created by last year’s success? Especially since the team was moved into Division I (as was Huntington Park) as a “reward” for its progress. The competition will be tougher, as reflected in the nonleague schedule that includes games with Palisades High of Pacific and San Pedro High, as well as fellow Valley area and Division I team Grant High.

Coach Matt Gentle, now in his third season, believes the preceding 2016 and 2017 teams have provided this season’s squad with the necessary background and attitude to keep Cleveland football moving in the right direction.

“The good thing is, we still have kids who were on the team last year who picked up on [the culture change], and have become our leaders,” Gentle said. “We established it with the [2016] kids but we still had a rough patch in the beginning — that year we were 2-8. But now we have leaders who know what it’s about; it’s not just ‘talk.’ They saw the work the guys put in last year and how it led to a great season. Let’s hope they can continue it.”

Joseph Achonu, who showed great promise as a defensive end last season, is one who definitely had a different attitude when spring practice began, and has carried it into the summer.

“The loss [to Huntington Park] was really heartbreaking,” said Achonu, 16, a senior. “But because of that, this spring and summer practice I know I have put in a lot more work than I did in my junior year. I understand hard work now — there was always more that I could do.

“This [season] I cut out all the outside distractions and focused on football only. Because I would hate for that to happen again, to get so close to a championship and then lose it. Going into this year I was focused on the weight room, the field work, eating right, and all the other stuff. I want to make sure that this team gets there, and takes it home.”

The Cavaliers also expect to benefit from several transfers, especially two from Arleta High — Andrew Ayala and Victor Espinoza.

Ayala, 16, a senior, plays linebacker and further strengthens a defense that is expected to carry the team in the early going while the offense is recalibrated. He can also provide valuable insight, having played a D-I regular season and playoff schedule at Arleta the past three years.

“At this level, the only change is speed,” Ayala said. “At Arleta, in the East Valley League, we also played against D-II and D-III teams. They weren’t the same completion. Playing the better schools like Eagle Rock, Carson, and Crenshaw [in the playoffs], they were fast, physical and always played at a high level with discipline. That’s the difference.”

Espinoza is currently the starting quarterback, taking over for last year’s starter Takashi Drayton, who graduated. While Gentle (who was a running back at Kennedy High) wants to take advantage of his big offensive line and run the ball instead of employing a “spread” offensive scheme more geared to throwing, the coach still wants Espinoza to get the ball to the corps of wide receivers, led by McFall.

“Victor…doesn’t have the running ability that Takashi had, but he’s smarter in the pocket and makes the right choices,” Gentle said. “TK could force things sometimes, but he knew he had Isaiah Adams,” a first team All-City selection at wide receiver.

“Victor is establishing trust — he definitely has it with Jalyne — but he understands taking what the defense gives him.”

The mood about — and the belief in — the football team at Cleveland is certainly on the upswing. 

Gentle said more college coaches and scouts are calling and asking about players. “Another thing guys did last year was establish that there is talent here. We had 10 guys get college offers last year; that was unheard of at Cleveland.”

The players are anticipating more support from the student body and community. “I think they know what we’re capable of, and what we can do,” McFall said.

How that all translates for the Cavaliers, particularly in the West Valley League which already houses perennial contenders at Birmingham and El Camino Real, is something to watch for in 2018.

“The fact that this year we go into D-I, and we have better players and better linemen, it’s gonna so much fun,” Achonu said.