Former players return for coaching challenge, Part 2

By MICHAEL COIT
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

Pacing and gesturing along sidelines, instructing with clipboard in hand, Monica Mertle is a basketball coach confident in her directions and decisions.

Windsor High School's girls basketball coach Monica Mertle encourages her team during the game held at Windsor High School, Jan. 13, 2011. (CRISTA JEREMIASON / PD)

The first-year Windsor High School girls’ coach reveals experience beyond her years.

Sure, she was an all-state prep player at Ursuline and all-conference selection for St. Mary’s College. But her call to coaching came unexpectedly, yet is proving to be a fine fit.

“Basketball is kind of what defined me. It still does,” Mertle said. “I realized I had so many things I could share with people.”

Coming into the Sonoma County League with first-year coach Melissa Jones at El Molino and alongside Jackie Sellards at Healdsburg, both Empire prep standouts, Mertle is making the most of the opportunity to help lead a new generation of girls’ basketball in the Empire.

“I think it’s a huge advantage to understand where they are as young women. She can relate more to them on that level,” said Windsor athletic director Gene Sandwina. “Being a great player doesn’t make you a great coach. For whatever reason, she has that ability.”

Following an uneven start, the Jaguars have won their first three league games. Windsor has the skill and size to score and stay in games. Gaining confidence to know they can play with any team is coming, said Mertle, 26.

“The girls have grown a lot,” Mertle said. “The girls understand what they need to do in order to earn those minutes.”

Having played all positions, from down low on the post to shooting guard, Mertle teaches her squad to be versatile. Her tallest player shoots 3-pointers. Guards crash for rebounds.

Defense is foremost in her approach to the game.

“We’re definitely a defensive-minded team,” she said. “Understanding how to work hard and being committed is the other thing.”

That discipline carries over to offense. Windsor isn’t afraid to shoot, but players must be disciplined — there are a daunting 40 sets in the Windsor playbook.

“They need to learn how to be basketball players,” Mertle said.

With nine girls now in a regular rotation, Windsor is deep and can wear down opponents.

“They’re showing resiliency,” Mertle said. “We’re still shaping an identity. It’s about discipline and playing smart.”

That would be Monica Mertle.

Twice Empire player of the year, she took her talents to St. Mary’s. But a knee injury, broken ankle and then a balky back left her with a difficult decision.

“It was no longer how many points am I going to score but whether I would be in a wheelchair at 65,” Mertle said. To stop playing “was the hardest thing I ever did because basketball was my life.”

Mertle entered a master’s program at UC Davis after graduating from St. Mary’s. So frustrated with being away from the game, she didn’t watch the sport or pick up a basketball that year.

Studying exercise physiology became a step toward coaching basketball. Mertle completed a master’s in the field in large part to understand the injuries that bedeviled her career. She learned, for instance, how lower body strength and flexibility were paramount to girls avoiding injury.

“I realized there’s more to basketball than winning a game,” she said.

During a summer break while in graduate school, Mertle rekindled her enthusiasm for basketball. She worked with a handful of Sonoma County’s top high school girls.

Players kept coming, leading Mertle to form not one but eight amateur age-group teams the following spring.

“I just had to figure another way to stay involved,” Mertle said. “I wanted to be part of a team so badly.”

Then she was the assistant to Windsor coach Joe Passalacqua in 2009. Mertle took over this season when Passalacqua stepped down to spend more time on his legal practice.

Preparation for the campaign included weight training and nutritional advice.

“I’m going to do everything possible to make sure my girls are trained,” she said. “It’s important that these girls are taken care of as athletes.”

Keeping a fun atmosphere around the team also is important. Mertle mixes in flag football, community service projects and other activities.

Before fall practice, Mertle sent the team to a ropes course in Occidental.

“The best way to bring a team together is to terrify them,” she said with a smile.

A woman leading girls’ up a tree might be more convincing than a man. Similarly, a woman coaching basketball can resonate with girls. Having women as coaches most of her playing days was fortunate, Mertle said.

“I felt comfortable communicating with a female coach. There are some girls who feel more comfortable talking to a woman,” Mertle said. “I try to treat my players how I wanted to be treated as a player.”

Those women coaches were Mertle’s role models.

“As a player, I valued that. The female coaches did what I wanted to do, which is to have success,” she said.

Playing the game at highly competitive levels doesn’t necessarily translate into wins as a coach.

“As a player when you’re at a very high level, there’s a lot of focus on doing your job,” Mertle said. “As a coach, it’s no longer about you. It’s about being able to understand how to motivate players, how to communicate with them.”

As with past challenges, Mertle is up to the task.

“There’s been a lot of work, but it’s been rewarding,” she said. “It’s been a blast.”