Padecky: Ursuline athletes struggle with loss of identity

By BOB PADECKY
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

The quick solution, the easy solution, would be to think of it as simply a change in laundry.

Ursuline celebrates after scoring a point late in the fourth match in the game held at El Molino High School, Nov. 10, 2010. Ursuline defeated El Molino. (CRISTA JEREMIASON / PD)

Instead of “Ursuline” across the front of a jersey or the top of a track uniform, stitch “Newman” or “Montgomery” or “Maria Carrillo.”

Ursuline High School may be closing but the female athletes still can play sports. They can just transfer somewhere else or just walk across the common luncheon area on campus and join Newman.

Oh, that this mess could be so quickly, easily resolved.

“I’m a senior now,” said Savannah Clements, a soccer player and Ursuline’s student body president, “but if this (school closing) had happened last year, I couldn’t have played for another school that had been my opponent for three years. It would be too weird. Same thing about Cardinal Newman. It’s not that I disrespect the other schools. It’s just that I feel so part of Ursuline.”

“Part of Ursuline.” It’s a mantra. After talking to Clements and another Ursuline soccer player, Rachel Rubattino, it was like they were talking about their second skin, something so close to them that they couldn’t tell where Ursuline ends and they begin.

Sports have played a significant factor in that. For when they take the soccer pitch, they are Ursuline, a private school that provides a very public target.

“I think it’s fun having the bull’s eye (on the forehead),” said Rubattino, a senior who also plays basketball and runs track. “We know teams will always be very aggressive when they play Ursuline. They always play their hardest.”

A bull’s eye team, or a bull’s eye school for that matter, is that Johnny Cash song about a boy named Sue: Either get tough or die.

A team draws closer together, finds unity easy to embrace, when everyone else, it seems, is on the other side. It contributes to the culture of closeness, in which the circling-of-wagons is tighter, the resistance to attack more resolute. Which helps explain a wall in Rubattino’s bedroom. It has Ursuline literally written all over it.

“I’m the one on the team in charge of gathering inspirational sayings,” Rubattino said. “I find one that’s appropriate to a game we’re playing and I make copies for everyone on the team. I have all those sayings on my wall, along with two of my Ursuline jerseys and pictures of my teams.”

That her bedroom is a living museum would not be far from the truth, with the only thing missing is Rubattino slapping a little mud on her wall. For what has gone as long as anyone can remember, it’s called “mud practice.” When the rain hits and the soccer field turns into an oozing bog, the players turn to slinging with and sliding in the mud. It’s the same folksy Ursuline soccer tradition as The Dance Room, where the team meets in seclusion before every home match, to express whatever needs to be expressed, in complete privacy.

Habits like that have gone on for so long at Ursuline that both Clements and Rubattino greeted Tuesday’s announcement of the school’s closing in the 3 p.m. e-mail from principal Julie Carver with a shrug.

“I thought it was a joke,” Rubattino said.

Both girls initially thought the e-mail was payback for Monday, when all the seniors stayed away from class because it was the day after Halloween.

“After a while,” Rubattino said, “we knew it wasn’t a joke.”

Both students and teachers alike took the news hard but athletes, by the very nature of what they do, put their own unique spin on it. Athletes rely and react to the knowable universe. I move here, my opponent moves there. I must exploit my strength and their weakness. This is the play. This is our plan. Here’s how we attack. Here’s how we win. In two hours, this important game will define us and our season. It’s a finite life athletes lead.

There are no finite answers right now. There is no textbook available, no quick fix. The Ursuline-Newman transitional team, said Ursuline athletic director Rich Herrmann, is about a week away from being formed. Only then can questions being asked now begin to be answered. Such as:

Will they be the Lady Cardinals?

Will Ursuline High School vanish completely, leaving only Newman girl athletes?

Will the baby blue Ursuline color vanish as well, to where the girls will feel like they are wearing the boys’ colors?

How long will it take for the girls to stop feeling like they are visiting Newman to go to school?

Will they always be playing for Ursuline, the freshman-sophomore-junior girls still at the school now?

A girl going to school at Newman is like being invited over to a boy’s house for dinner. The boy and his parents are kind, generous and welcoming. But the girl always knows it’s the boy’s house, and she’s just visiting. And the girl playing for Newman, well, that just feels uncomfortable, like getting a kiss from the Joker.

“When I’m on the soccer field,” Rubattino said, “I feel I am playing not just for my teammates but for my teammates that came before me.”

That last sentence is at the core of the outrage, sadness, frustration, bewilderment, anxiety. Ursuline worked — or at least used to work — because girls made a conscious decision to be at an all-girls school, replete with all the advantages, real or imagined. Three soccer teammates from Ukiah, Rubattino said, make the daily drive to Santa Rosa.

Sports provide an allegiance in their most public form, identifying the players and the school to everyone, revealing the depth of connection between the two. Ursuline has 130 years going for it, Newman just 40, and the school that’s been playing sports three times longer is closing. Is that fair? As Clements and Rubattino just found out Tuesday, fair has nothing to do with it.

“You know how sometimes you might be late a minute or two for class and not be bothered by it?” Rubattino said. “Not anymore. I’m getting to class on time for the rest of the year.”

Yes, Clements said, she wants to experience every tick left on the Ursuline clock.

“I want to be here for everything,” she said.

When the day comes and if she was so fortunate, Rubattino said, she already had planned to put her girls through Ursuline. After all, her mother Karen went there. She went there. Her girls would go there. So Rubattino wants to be at Ursuline for everything before they close the doors, so that one day she can tell them what they missed.Listen up, girls. We had mud practice … yeah, mud practice … you never seen such mud … kept some in a Mason jar … here, let me show you.

For more North Bay sports, go to Bob Padecky’s blog at padecky.blog.pressdemocrat.com. You can reach Staff Columnist at 521-5223 or bob.padecky@pressdemocrat.com.