|By HAROLD ABEND
January 16, 2015
When Cardinal Newman-Santa Rosa head coachMonica Mertle played high school basketball from 1999-2003, it was on the other side of the driveway from the Newman campus at Ursuline.
That was eight years before the Ursuline Sisters of Santa Rosa decided to shutter the all-girls school in 2011, and the Diocese subsequently moved the girls across the driveway by making previously all boys Newman coeducational.
Mertle, a two-time Cal-Hi Sports Division IV all-state honoree, an all-state junior and all-state third-team overall selection as a senior, that went on to have a decent career as a 6-foot wing at St. Mary’s, and then UC Davis where she earned a masters degree, was the absolute perfect choice to take the helm of the new program when the girls went from being Bears to Cardinals.
Now in her fourth season guiding the team, Mertle has gradually turned the Cardinals into the top girls program this season in the Redwood Empire portion of the CIF North Coast Section.
In her first three years, the Cardinals have improved from 13-15 to 16-9, and then to 24-8 last year in a season that ended in a 58-48 loss to Scotts Valley in the CIF Northern Regional Division IV semifinals.
After barely breaking a sweat in a 76-24 victory over visiting Ukiah on Thursday night, Newman’s record this year is 11-5 (4-0 North Bay League), but don’t get fooled by those five losses.
Despite three losses in the Diamond Division at the West Coast Jamboree, plus a loss to Oregon power Oregon City, and a close 60-54 setback to Prep2Prep Northern California No. 11 ranked Eastside Prep-East Palo Alto, the Cardinals are still the No. 3 ranked Division IV team in the Prep2Prep NorCal rankings.
Mertle and her girls fall in behind defending NorCal Open Division champion No. 9 Salesian-Richmond and fellow East Bay perennial power No. 10 St. Mary’s-Berkeley. Overall, the girls were ranked No. 23 in the Prep2Prep NorCal rankings released earlier this week.
At the Jamboree they were in every game, losing by three points to Prep2Prep No. 19 Sacramento, by eight to No. 17 Berkeley, and 52-43 to a Brea-Olinda-Brea team that was ranked No. 9 in the state by Cal-Hi Sports coming into the Jamboree.
So much for the losses. The wins are what have Newman on the radar screen.
The noise actually started last summer at the San Diego Classic. Unlike at the Jamboree where the girls played in the second-toughest division, in San Diego they were in the 3A top division where they turned some heads with a ninth-place finish.
In the ninth-place game, they took down one of the top teams in Orange County with a 47-40 victory over Foothill-Santa Ana. Foothill had beaten current state-ranked Clovis West-Fresno while Newman was coming off a win over CIF San Diego Section Division IV power The Bishop’s-La Jolla.
This season the Newman girls hosted their Cardinals Classic prior to the Jamboree, and despite a 62-53 loss to an Oregon City team that went on to beat a Sacred Heart Cathedral-San Francisco team that just upset NorCal No. 2 St. Ignatius-San Francisco, the girls had a great tournament. They avenged the loss to Scotts Valley with a resounding 63-42 victory over a team that then went on to beat Sacred Heart Cathedral.
Another notable win is a 69-40 win over Sacramento Bee No. 8 ranked Bradshaw Christian-Sacramento.
Doing as well as they did in their own tournament one would have to think that would be the experience the girls and Mertle relish the most, but the actual answer may be a surprise.
“Last year showed me we needed to have tougher games early on,” Mertle told Prep2Prep.
“We’re trying to grow the program but until you go out and play top, established teams you don’t know where you’re at as a program and a team,” continued Mertle, who counts her younger sister Heidi Mertle as one of her trusted assistants. Heidi also played at Ursuline and then at Sonoma State.
So while the Cardinals Classic bolstered the girls confidence it was at the West Coast Jamboree that the real lessons were learned.
“Even though we lost three games, it was great for us. Playing up like that against those programs was the best thing we ever did,” remarked the Cardinals head coach. “We learned more in those three games than any other games this season.”
And what did the girls learn from playing in the Diamond Division at the Jamboree?
“Playing against teams like that taught us we have to respect our opponents, and always maintain our consistency and intensity,” said senior point guardKylie Kiech.
It’s about the girls
Speaking of the girls. The coaching staff under Mertle has brought the girls a long way, but one thing that’s noticeable about the Newman girls is the roster is full of contributors, and many are still young.
Kiech, who averages nine points per game, only played around a half against Ukiah, but still managed nine points and nine assists. The only other senior amongst the six girls Mertle rotates as starters is guard and defensive stopper Julia Bertolero.
The duo of Kiech and Bertolero are the first girls to go through four years in the program with Kiech currently the program’s leading scorer with 1,141 points.
Junior 6-foot forward Tiffany Salinas is also averaging nine points a game. She had 18 points and five rebounds against Ukiah. Sophomore 6-foot-3 forward Hailey Vice-Neat (10 ppg average) can score and rebound and was a big factor in the San Diego Classic win over Foothill where she had 11 points, eight rebounds and four steals.
Two freshmen are part of the six-girl rotation. GuardMaiya Flores is not only the future leader, but she can score and shoot the three-pointer. Flores nailed two 3s in a short stint against Ukiah (nine points, four assists) but in the summer win over Foothill she nailed four treys including one that helped seal the victory. She leads the team in scoring at 11 points per game. The other freshman is slick guardJasmine Henderson.
Two key contributors off the bench are also underclassmen. Sophomore 6-foot-4 Lauren Walker(nine ppg average) is the team’s only true post. She had eight points and eight rebounds against Ukiah, and in the summer Foothill win, she was big off the bench with eight points. Freshman guard Tal Webbcan score and is not afraid to hit the boards and play tough defense.
The Cardinals girls are only a third of the way through the North Bay League schedule, but the way they’ve looked so far makes it hard not to look at their playoff possibilities.
Last year both Salesian and St. Mary’s were moved up from Division IV to the Open Division for the Northern Regional playoffs. That left the door open and it was Justin-Siena-Napa that walked through and all the way to the CIF Division IV state championship game where they lost to Sierra Canyon-Chatsworth.
Newman is not eligible to be moved up, so if the commissioners take eight teams again for the NorCal Open Division it would be a distinct possibility Salesian and St. Mary’s could be chosen again.
That could leave the door open for teams like Cardinal Newman, Scotts Valley or Bradshaw Christian, plus a few other teams like Piedmont or West Campus-Sacramento.
“Some people outside the program questioned why we would play against the top programs in the state like we did at the Jamboree and lose all three games. We never questioned it,” Mertle said.
The bright young coach knew the answer to getting deep in the playoffs is having played teams early on as good as or better than you may see in the playoffs.
So far the formula is working. Newman has already beaten Scotts Valley and Bradshaw Christian to go with the losses and lumps delivered by the big schools.
Check back in March for the answer.