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UPON FURTHER REVIEW: CLEVELAND FOOTBALL NO JOKE.

Byline: VINCENT BONSIGNORE

``What do you guys think of my shirt?'' Cleveland High of Reseda football coach Craig Cieslik asked as his players formed a circle around him before practice Thursday. ``Pretty cool, huh?''

There is silence for a moment as the Cavaliers weigh the question. Cieslik is offering the quirky see-through shirt to his players, but they don't want to offend their coach and his questionable taste in clothes.

``Uh, no thanks, coach,'' one player said. ``I'm good.''

There are murmurs and nervous chuckles now as Cieslik stands before his team, obviously proud of his new shirt.

Finally, another player can't take it any longer.

``That's what we call a weekend shirt,'' he said. ``It's one of those shirts you wear only on weekends. ``and only when you're lounging around at home. ... Alone.''

The team erupts in laughter.

``Ah, man,'' Cieslik says, laughing as hard as anyone. ``You guys don't know anything about style.''

It's easy to smile and laugh these days at Cleveland, where a close-knit group of Cavaliers - who have just 25 players on the roster - improved to 5-0 after Friday's 21-20 victory over Monroe of North Hills.

And nobody has as much fun as Cieslik, whose balancing act of hard work, discipline and a heavy dose of fun has triggered a positive response from his team of overachievers.

``It's all business on the field,'' Cleveland QB De'von Hall said. ``And I mean all business. But he keeps things fun off it. We're like one big family.''

And a winning one, at that. The Cavaliers are pointed to the playoffs for the second consecutive year, a dramatic change from four years ago, when Cieslik arrived at Cleveland from Vasquez High.

The season before, Cleveland had won just two games, and the program was plagued with discipline problems. Opponents were fearful of playing the Cavaliers, concerned with their roughneck style.

``From what I was told, guys were on the sidelines flashing (gang) signs, talking (stuff) to other players,'' Cieslik said. ``When I was brought in, it wasn't even 'Hey, get us some wins,' it was 'Just get this program cleaned up.' ''

That wasn't as difficult as it might seem. Cieslik might be a jokester off the field, but once on it, he's tough, demanding and confrontational.

``Some guys didn't like that,'' Cieslik said. ``I was like, 'Fine, there's the door right there.' ''

Plenty used it. And to this day, Cieslik's edgy style quickly weeds out the pretenders.

``We always start our offseason program with like, 50 guys or so,'' Hall said. ``But pretty soon, guys start falling off. They can't take the heat. They don't like to run. They don't like getting yelled at. They can't deal with being disciplined. You hear all the reasons. Then one day, you look around and there's like 25 guys left standing. And that's our team.''

The players remaining don't mind. When the dust settled from the battle of attrition, a small band of football warriors emerged. The Cavaliers aren't the biggest or the most talented team, but you won't find any more tougher or closer.

``Very, very, very close,'' wide receiver Vernon Catlin said. ``There is trust on this team, and that's big. As far as having 25 guys or so, that's just fine with me. We got 11 guys on both sides of the ball to scrimmage against in practice, and that's plenty as far as I'm concerned. What more do you need? Let's get after it.''

Cieslik isn't afraid to laugh with his players, even when he's the butt of the jokes. That was immediately apparent four years ago when he first spoke to his team and the players found out their new coach had a serious speech impediment.

``I stutter,'' Cieslik explains. ``I have all my life.''

At first, the players were taken aback, not sure how to react.

``We were like, 'whoa,' '' running back Julius Killings said.

Sensing the awkwardness, Cieslik quickly made light of his problem, a mechanism he has used his whole life to put people at ease. Pretty soon the players understood Cieslik was comfortable enough with his situation to joke about it.

``We can all laugh about it now. He's cool with that,'' Killings said.

In fact, the players like it better when Cieslik is stuttering.

``That means he's laughing, having fun, loose,'' Catlin said.

And when he's not.

``When he's speaking clearly, watch out,'' Catlin warns, shaking his head. ``That's when you know he's mad. That's when you know somebody's in trouble.''

Lately, nobody is getting in trouble. Winning has that kind of effect on a team.

CAPTION(S):

photo

Photo:

Cleveland coach Craig Cieslik talks with his football team during Thursday's practice.

Gus Ruelas/Staff Photographer
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Title Annotation:Sports
Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Oct 9, 2004
Words:785
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