Cleveland Off to Running Start Under Escoto : Basketball: Cavaliers return to swaggering style and race to quarterfinals before losing to Long Beach Poly in L.A. Games.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Somehow, the term comfort zone never seemed to fit when applied to the Cleveland High basketball team. This is a bunch of guys who pass on passive, players who prefer to press the issue, if you will.

There were times last season when players felt out of sorts. Instead of aggressively charging forward, players seemed to sometimes stay in a holding pattern, also inconsistent with the Cleveland system.

Bort Escoto, hired Friday as the new Cleveland coach, promises steps will be taken to push the program in its original direction--full speed ahead.

His players, like pirates eyeing a village ripe for plundering, can hardly wait.

"We're back to 'The Land,' " said forward Brandon Martin, the team's lone returning starter from a year ago. "We're back to the pressure defenses, the up-tempo, the running off everything."

On Escoto's first day as coach Saturday, the Cavaliers ran their way into the quarterfinals of the L. A. Games before falling to Long Beach Poly, 49-46, at El Camino College in Torrance. Cleveland defeated Locke, 57-42, earlier in the day.

At times, it was vintage Cleveland. After sleepwalking through the early moments against scrappy Locke, the Cavaliers made up a 26-22 halftime deficit in the blink of an eye. Led by Martin, who scored 14 of his game-high 23 points in the second half, Cleveland buried Locke with a 35-16 blitz.

The Cavaliers forced 16 Locke turnovers in the second half with the kind of trapping, keeping-my-nose-in-your-business defense that has made most opposing guards wilt for the past decade.

"We can definitely run," forward Kahyeed Murray said. "We've got a lot of wind."

The winds of change seem to agree with the players. Although Escoto, 24, is the team's third coach in little more than a year, players were glad the longtime assistant was given the chance to prove himself. Marc Paez, who coached Cleveland to a 21-6 record and a berth in the City Section 4-A Division semifinals before resigning two weeks ago after one season, was not a Cleveland product.

Escoto, an assistant at Cleveland for the past five years, is right off the vine. He attended Cleveland and learned the system under former Coach Bob Braswell, now an assistant at Cal State Long Beach. Paez's changes and the difference in personalities in comparison to Braswell were difficult for some players to handle.

"The transition was short and sweet," Escoto said. "It's been very comfortable. It feels like it went from Braswell right to me."

Players seem relieved.

"Ever since I started, it seemed like I haven't had a stable coach," Martin said. "I felt pressure about who might be coming in. Nobody wanted some clown coming in and messing everything up, teaching another whole new system."

Braswell was as much a big brother as coach to many players, something else that Escoto seems intent on duplicating.

"When you spend time with the kids, they know you care about them," Escoto said. "It doesn't have to end when practice ends."

Escoto also seems fully prepared to follow through on his promise to crack down on discipline. When a Cleveland player got into hot water with a referee during the Locke game, Escoto removed the player from the game and barked at him at length on the team bench.

"We want model students, not just basketball players," he said.

Many players on the team are hardly models cut from a Division I mold. Escoto has inherited a crop of players who, in contrast to many talent-laden teams of the past few seasons, seem rather pedestrian.

There are just five seniors, three of whom were varsity reserves last season. The rest are from Escoto's junior-varsity team of last year. The tallest player stands 6-foot-5.

"These guys have been with me for a while," Escoto said. "They're young, but they're ready to play. I can get mileage out of them."

Martin thinks the team is more than capable of giving any team a run for its money.

"The key to this program is heart," Martin said. "If you have that, you can produce on this club."

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