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Ursuline athletes prepare for transition to Newman

By PHIL BARBER
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

When Ursuline High School announced on Nov. 9 that it would be shutting its doors after the 2010-11 school year, it seemed like minutes before Mary Cooper began hearing from other high school softball coaches in the area.

After some misgivings, Ursuline junior softball player Hailey Eisenhauer looks forward to playing for Cardinal Newman as a senior. Photo by Crista Jeremaison / The Press Democrat

“I got e-mails from several coaches saying, ‘We understand you won’t have a team anymore,’” Cooper said. “And I’m thinking, ‘Really? No one told me.’”

Cooper, as well as the respective administrations of Ursuline and Cardinal Newman high schools, has a message for the parents, students and coaches of Sonoma County: Ursuline athletes won’t be scattered to the North Bay winds. Rather, the vast majority are likely to just march across the campus to Newman.

“I find there’s a significant lack of understanding of the degree of support we already give to Ursuline athletics,” Cardinal Newman principal Graham Rutherford said. “I found it remarkable for people to be thinking that a sports program was disappearing. We’re already deeply invested.”

As Rutherford noted, there is a strong mingling of the two programs.

Newman already provides full facilities for four Ursuline teams — including soccer and tennis — and helps with facilities for four others.

Among the 11 Ursuline sports, seven varsity head coaches are based at Newman. That includes Cooper, who happens to be the Cardinals’ athletic director. Another Ursuline coach, basketball’s Jeff Paul, is a Cardinal Newman graduate. Numerous assistants further blur the line.

That’s not surprising, given that the two schools also share some teachers and classrooms.

“The coeducation part is something we have strong experience with,” said Rutherford, who team-teaches a history class with Ursuline athletic director Rich Herrmann. “It’s not like we’re a traditional all-boys school. Kids walk back and forth all day. They eat lunch together.”

Still, there was a lot of collective angst when Ursuline principal Julie Carver made the big announcement in November.

“It was more like, ‘Where are we all gonna go?’” said junior Hailey Eisenhauer, who is currently playing basketball at Ursuline and will play softball this spring. “I came to Ursuline not knowing anyone, and now it’s like a family. It was like 130 years being thrown away. You’ve got people coming from all over, and it’s being closed. We were shocked, in general.”

Since then, Cardinal Newman has gone out of its way to alleviate such fears. The school immediately announced it would accept all eligible Ursuline students in the fall of 2011, and has organized two open houses to introduce itself to interested girls.

Newman is hosting a pasta dinner tonight to discuss enrollment and other issues. The high school also has devoted a section of its website to the Ursuline transition, with links to frequently asked questions and a student survey that encourages comments.

“I called all my players together that first week and told them, ‘This is what we know. The program is on. We’ve got a full schedule, and everything will be the same till the end of the year,’” Cooper said. “There were many sighs of relief.”

One of them may have been Eisenhauer’s.

“I was gonna shadow at a couple of different private schools, like St. Vincent,” she said. “But once we heard Newman was opening up for us, my parents were like, ‘you’re going to Cardinal Newman.’”

Not that the situation has reached anything approaching perfect clarity. Even if Cardinal Newman accepts every current Ursuline underclasswoman, there are a million details to work out.

Will there be enough budget for books, supplies and summer school?

Will Newman be able to accommodate all the Ursuline coaches?

What will the new uniforms look like?

Cardinals or Lady Cardinals?

The Ursuline nuns will aid the transition by making certain athletic facilities available for three years, ensuring that every current Ursuline student has a place to compete for her full high school experience. That includes the girls’ gym (for volleyball and basketball practice) and a softball field.

Still unresolved is how best to honor Ursuline’s formidable athletic tradition.

Herrmann knows the blue-and-white Ursuline colors and the familiar bear mascot will be things of the past, but he wonders about official school records and memorabilia. Will it be possible to hang Ursuline championship pennants in the Cardinal Newman gym, for example? He hopes so.

“Both sides realize it’s something that won’t be forgotten,” Herrmann said. “We have to make sure it’s not just in a box somewhere. … We want to preserve a sense of the past but create a new identity, too.”

Meanwhile, life has normalized again at Ursuline. In the hallways, and in the gym, uncertainty and bewilderment have mostly turned to acceptance. Even anticipation.

“I’m kind of excited, because I can be part of the first girl class to go to Newman,” Eisenhauer said. “It’s not a downer for me. … At least you’re playing the game you love. It’ll be different to be known as the Lady Cardinals, but it’s the same girls on the same team.”

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