New Santa Monica High School Athletic Director Daniel Escalera in front of the High School marquee on Pico Boulevard on Thursday afternoon. (photo by Brandon Wise)

SAMOHI — Nobody ever said that replacing the late Norm Lacy as Santa Monica High School’s athletic director was going to be easy. Yet, Daniel Escalera and his supporters think he has as good a shot as any.

Escalera, 55, moves to the helm of the athletic department during both one of its darkest and most successful periods in recent history. Lacy, who was the athletic director for the better part of the past decade, passed away late last month putting the department in disarray at a time that one of its marquee programs — softball — was vying for a championship.

For Escalera, the first things that come to mind are preserving what is already in place and contemplating what’s to be.

“Hopefully we can maintain what [Lacy] established,” Escalera said. “I just have to immerse myself, listen to what people are saying.”

Since being selected last week by a hiring committee that included school administration, staff and coaches, Escalera has done his best to press hands and gather what information is available to make sure schedules and facilities are in order for next year.

Familiarizing himself with the school community should be a snap for Escalera, who has both coached and taught at Samohi for the past 22 years. In his time, he’s been head football coach and has taught economics and world history among other subjects. He also spent time across town coaching and teaching at St. Monica, where he graduated in 1973.

“It’s important to have a feel for what the coaching life is like on the Westside,” he said. “You have to know what’s happening, you have to be the fabric of the community.”

Escalera’s numerous ties to Santa Monica have already won over some of the coaches that will serve under him next year.

James Hecht, who has been the head basketball coach for over two decades, said that Escalera should benefit not only the department but the entire school community.

“He’s a seasoned vet,” Hecht said. “He knows the landscape of our school and our community … .”

For a number of coaches, maintaining a strong relationship with the new athletic director will be key to continuing the school’s recent success in a number of sports.

Marty Verdugo, who led the girls’ basketball team to its first California Interscholastic Federation Southern Section title in the sport this past season, wants to continue a relationship with Escalera that he has developed over the nine years they have taught at the school together.

During the team’s title run, Verdugo said that he spent a lot of time with Escalera, time Verdugo said was “inspirational.”

“I think he’s a tremendous choice,” Verdugo said. “For me personally, he has a lot of integrity.

“Really a Samo guy through and through.”

With his acceptance of the position at Samohi, Escalera leaves behind an assistant coaching position at Loyola High School, where he was a walk-on member of the staff. He’ll also cut back on the number of classes he teaches, giving him more time to deal with the workings of an athletic department that saw two teams win CIF-SS titles last year and a third that made it to the finals.

“I’m just real excited,” Escalera said. “There are some outstanding coaches and outstanding players at Santa Monica.

“To be a part of the athletic scene is just amazing.”

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