Ursuline faces sudden end to proud sports history


Pat McDonald misses the Ursuline Bears already.

Ursuline's Elizabeth Meddaugh watches her team finish off El Molino during the game held at El Molino High School, Nov. 10, 2010. (CRISTA JEREMIASON / PD)

McDonald had more pressing concerns Wednesday night, of course. As the Montgomery girls’ soccer coach, he was preparing his second-seeded team for a North Coast Section semifinal game against No. 3 Casa Grande.

Still, with the prospect of Ursuline High locking its doors and closing the lights on 130 years of history, opponents like McDonald couldn’t help but ponder a North Bay League without the respected Catholic girls’ school.

“It’s a game our girls always look forward to,” McDonald said. “It was a friendly rivalry. The girls play as hard as they can for 80 minutes, and after the game they truly shake hands and wish each other well. There’s no animosity.”

Without offering details, McDonald admitted he has seen moments of poor sportsmanship while coaching in the North Bay, but said, “That doesn’t happen with Ursuline.”

Unless the nuns who run the institution have a dramatic change of heart, the Bears may have played their final soccer game under the Ursuline banner. Similar scenarios will play out in volleyball this month, in basketball over the winter and softball in the spring.

“This will be crazy,” Maria Carrillo girls’ soccer coach Debra LaPrath said. “We’ll have to see how it pans out.”

Ursuline has fielded some of Sonoma County’s strongest girls’ sports programs in recent years. Playing in various classes and divisions, the Bears have claimed five NCS championships in soccer (1996, 1998, 1999, 2000, 2005), four in golf (1993, 1995, 1996, 1997), two in basketball (1990, 2002) two in softball (2000, 2006) and one in volleyball (1995).

During the 2009-2010 school year, Ursuline went to the NCS tournament in soccer, volleyball, hoops and softball. The soccer and volleyball teams were back in the brackets this fall.

“We do have a proud tradition in all sports,” long-time basketball coach Jeff Paul said.

But it’s soccer that has emerged as Ursuline’s signature program. The Bears won those three consecutive section titles from 1998 to 2000, and played in the final each year from 2004 to 2006 as well.

“I’ve been coaching at Carrillo since 1996, and there has not been a year that Ursuline hasn’t been a contender,” LaPrath said. LaPrath always knew that when her Pumas were playing Ursuline, they were in for a physical, low-scoring throwdown. She traced it to Bears coach John Gilson and his background as a goalie.

“His defense is always really solid, because that’s such an area of expertise for him,” LaPrath said.

She remembers 2000 as a definitive year for Bears soccer.

“It was a three-peat for Ursuline,” LaPrath said. “It was also our strongest year at Carrillo. We were undefeated going into the playoffs, and we lost to them 2-1 in the final. It just really showed how much they reigned at the time.”

For McDonald, the 2005 season is the one that lingers in his memory.

Ursuline ended the Vikings’ 63-game unbeaten streak on the final day of the regular season that year, and got Monty again in the NCS championship game, winning that one on penalty kicks.

That’s a lot of history to undo with one stroke of the budget pen. “The kids are destroyed,” Gilson said.

If the disappearance of Ursuline athletics creates a hole in the North Bay League, the diaspora of all those athletes could truly affect the balance of power next year.

Cardinal Newman has indicated it will open its doors to Ursuline students, but how many of those girls will opt to play in cardinal and gold — assuming Newman even has girls’ teams? Some figure Sonoma Academy will attract the more financially viable students. Beyond that, we could be looking at a free-for-all.

“You take a program of 40, 50 kids if you look at JV and varsity,” LaPrath said, referring specifically to soccer. “With those kids going to other schools, my goodness, that’s a big shift. … Even if I got 10 Ursuline kids, what a difference that makes.”

LaPrath acknowledged that integrating several new players into an existing program could be a tricky exercise.

But not as tricky as taking one of the most successful sports heritages in the area and dispersing it to the winds.

You can reach Staff Writer Phil Barber at 521-5263 or phil.barber@pressdemocrat.com.