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PADECKY: Maria Carrillo the school of champions

By BOB PADECKY
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

After looking at the numbers, the word that came to mind was “dominant.” Because, in Sonoma County, Maria Carrillo’s athletic program is. But every time I ran that word past a Carrillo coach or administrator, they seized up. We like the word “success” better. Use that. We’re OK with that one. “Dominant” has an aggressive, arrogant edge to it.

“We don’t throw our victories in anyone’s face,” said Kara Myers, Carrillo’s co-athletic director. “When you think of dominant, you think of boastful. We’re not boastful. We work hard, try to get better and are supportive of each other.”

The restraint Carrillo has in being proud of who it is, it’s admirable. Human nature, being what it is, never settles for second place unless it must. Finishing first has a tendency to bring out a strut, a scream, a chest thumping. But to do what Carrillo has done, and is doing, I’m surprised the Pumas haven’t taken out a full-page ad in this newspaper, proclaiming “Look, folks, we were 116-8-2 this fall in sports!”

Yes, you read it correctly. Excluding football's 4-6 record, and counting only head-to-head competition, Carrillo has a 116-8-2 record this fall in sports. Those numbers remind me of the win-loss records of UCLA basketball in those John Wooden years.

Carrillo is an NBL champion in seven of the eight fall sports. Ah, but there’s more.

Last spring Carrillo finished either first or second in 10 sports. Six of those teams were NBL champions or co-champions.

If Carrillo were to duplicate next spring what it did last spring, the Pumas would be NBL champs in 13 of a possible 18 sports by the time school ends in May.

For those of you keeping score at home, that’s Carrillo’s winning 72 percent of NBL gold.

Let’s pause, shall we, to absorb the weight of that number, that accomplishment, that happening with schools like Montgomery and Cardinal Newman in the mix. This is not a cream puff league. To round out the picture, if last spring is duplicated, Carrillo this year would finish either first or second in 17 of 18 sports. I told Myers this blew my mind, when I connected all the dots.

“It blows me away, too,” Myers said.

“I’ve never seen anything like it,” said Bob Harbaugh, the girls tennis coach.

“I don’t think there’s another school,” said cross country coach Ruben DiRado, “who can match our success in the last three years.”

So what do they put in the water at Carrillo, and can I have some? For a school to be that superior across the board, it’s more than one school having an exemplar coach leading one sport. Girls volleyball has won the last 11 NBL titles, nine of them outright, two shared. The girls tennis team has won the last three NBL titles. Girls soccer has won two consecutive NCS titles and four consecutive league championships.

Where to start? Provided by Myers, and based on the most recent data available, 37.3 percent of the 1,599 student body plays high school sports. That’s 596 kids. That isn’t a talent pool. That’s a talent ocean. Sixty-three kids, for example, went out for badminton, for criminey sakes. Volleyball had 27, swimming had 60. Rincon Valley Middle School, the primary feeder school to Carrillo, loves its sports as much as the high school it supplies. Harbaugh said 250 kids went out for RV track last spring.

“But how many times have you seen in sports,” said Debra LaPrath, coach of girls soccer, “that a team with a lot of talent blows it again and again.”

At the high school level, nothing inhibits success any more decisively than bad coaching. A poor coach is easy to spot. Yells at kids. Makes the game about him or her. Inflexible. Unapproachable. Creates fear. Obliterates self-confidence.

“The biggest challenge for every high school coach,” said cross country’s Greg Fogg, “is instilling self-confidence in a kid and making them comfortable in their own skin.”

Now, make no mistake, Fogg doesn’t hand out a lollipop every time one of his kids completes a lap. Carrillo athletes don’t get gold stars for showing up.

“We give them something hard to achieve,” DiRado said, “and they achieve it.”

That mentality is welcomed at Carrillo because, for the most part, a kid who goes there arrives with expectations.

“I think Carrillo is an intimidating school,” Myers said, “because of our academic success.”

In the 2012 state-run Academic Performance Index test, the only public high school in Sonoma County that tested higher than Carrillo’s 864 was Tech’s 916. A score of 800 is considered acceptable.

A kid who is expected to flourish both in the classroom and on the field typically is also one who understands the value of team over individual. While being a wonderful thing and necessary to a point, an unchecked ego disables a team.

“You have to be a great teammate,” said Jeff Nielson, girls volleyball coach. “We strive for it and talk about it every day. You have to buy in to that. If you don’t you’ll find yourself on the outside.”

Whether you are a teenager in 2012 or 1952, finding yourself on the outside looking in is the most severe punishment a high school kid could receive. Group psychology is at the core of the mood on any day on any high school campus.

Any coach at any level, and that includes the pros, will claim without hesitation that convincing players to work together is the toughest part of the job. At Carrillo that message is easier to deliver than at other places.

“We ask them to trust us,” DiRado said of instilling “we” over “me,” “and it doesn’t take a lot to trust us. Just look up at the rafters inside the gym.”

The banners displayed offer a compelling argument. Only in existence since 1996, Carrillo teams have won 22 NCS championships before this fall. The Pumas have won 62 NBL titles. Assumptions emerge. Speculation is tossed around casually.

“That Carrillo gets all the good athletes,” LaPrath said.

That judgment is rendered null and void by common sense. Good athletes choose schools for a variety of reasons. Carrillo, after all, is a public high school, not the New York Yankees buying an infield.

“Do we have genetically superior athletes?” DiRado asked. “Of course not. But maybe we get kids who come from stable environments. Maybe we get kids whose parents are actively involved in their lives. Sure, of course this also happens at other places.”

But how often does this happen at other places: “Thank you for pushing us!” That’s what LaPrath hears from her kids.

How often do you see this: Coaching continuity. LaPrath has been a Carrillo coach since the school opened, as has Harbaugh. Nielson is in his 11th year. Fogg and DiRado have been together for six years. Familiarity at Carrillo doesn’t breed contempt. It breeds stability. Expectations roll over to the next class.

“I’ve had four sets of three sisters,” Nielson said. “You get a lot of continuity that way.”

Carrillo succeeds the same way teams succeeded 100 years ago. Hard work. Respect. Be a good teammate. Yes, all this reads boring but, as DiRado might say, look at the rafters and see what boring has produced.

“Discussions have begun on creating a Carrillo Athletic Hall of Fame,” Myers said. “We hope to have it one of these years.”

A Hall of Fame for a school that’s only 16 years old? Say that somewhere else and people would shake their heads in wonder. At Carrillo the response is: Why not? We’ve earned it. Let’s do it. We should be proud.

And that would be the closest Maria Carrillo would ever get to boasting. They are “dominant” but they find no need to use the word. Why should they? When you have a win-loss record of 116-8-2, you don’t have to say anything at all.

You can reach Staff Columnist Bob Padecky at 521-5223 or bob.padecky@pressdemocrat.com.