PADECKY: Cardinals used to excessive heat spotlight brings

BY BOB PADECKY
PRESS DEMOCRAT SPORTS COLUMNIST

CHRISTOPHER CHUNG / The Press Democrat Cardinal Newman basketball players Corey Hammell, left, Tim McCullough, Sebastian Rodrigues and Sean Martin watch their teammates, as they take a break on the sidelines, during practice in Santa Rosa, on Wednesday, March 20, 2013.

CHRISTOPHER CHUNG / The Press Democrat
Cardinal Newman basketball players Corey Hammell, left, Tim McCullough, Sebastian Rodrigues and Sean Martin watch their teammates, as they take a break on the sidelines, during practice in Santa Rosa, on Wednesday, March 20, 2013.

Sebastian Rodrigues looked up into the stands on Dec. 29, 2012 and in that snapshot moment the Cardinal Newman center saw the effect his high school has on others in the Empire. The action in the stands left no ambiguity. When Cardinal Newman plays a game in any sport around here it attracts a singular type of attention and it was getting such attention that night.

“I saw fans and players from Maria Carrillo, Piner and Santa Rosa,” Rodrigues said.

The basketball teams from those schools were not playing. It was just Newman versus Acalanes in the Sonoma County Classic.

“They would cheer when we missed a shot,” Rodrigues said, “and they would boo when we made one.”

Those fans should have had no vested interest in the game. Except that Newman was playing. And that makes all the difference. As for that treatment?

“We expect it,” Rodrigues said. “You either love us or hate us.”

When Newman plays for the Division 4 state basketball champion tomorrow in Sacramento, the Cardinals know it will not have everyone in the Empire rooting for them. To be fair, the opposite will most likely hold true. No one cheers for Goliath any more than they cheer for the Yankees, Lakers and Cowboys (their own fans notwithstanding). The perception here is that Newman is at the top of the athletic food chain.

“It’s our tradition (of success),” said guard Tim McCullough.

In basketball and football, McCullough is spot on. In 36 years in the NBL, Newman has won outright or tied for 17 league titles in basketball. In football, during that same amount of time, Newman has won 16 NBL titles. When it comes to defining overall dominance, based on football and basketball, Newman apparently provides that definition. That’s the perception.

Here’s the truth.

Casa Grande baseball is second to none. Elsie Allen’s boys soccer team is aces. Montgomery’s girls are consistently exemplary in tennis. Truth to tell, Maria Carrillo clearly has the most successful overall high school athletic program in the area. Excluding football, Carrillo had a 116-8-2 record in fall sports. It was an NBL champ in seven of the eight fall sports. Last spring Carrillo finished either first or second in 10 sports, winning or sharing NBL titles in six of them.

So while the perception exists that Newman has the strongest tradition of any school in athletic success, it does. In two sports.

Football and basketball — given their national stature — provide the most grease for conversation, irritation and emotional investment. With its success in those two sports, Newman creates a huge overall impact in the county that leaves little wiggle room for interpretation by those who are not Newman.

“Our coach is always telling us,” said forward Corey Hammell, “we have a bullseye on our head.”

Basketball coach Tom Bonfigli, as with football coach Paul Cronin, consistently refers to Newman’s history of success. When your school’s basketball team has a winning percentage of .729 over 47 years (993 victories, 370 losses), a coach would be professionally negligent to ignore such numbers.

When a basketball team averages 21 victories over 47 years, a Newman teenager is encouraged to take the long view of history, as opposed to what they had for lunch yesterday.

“We play for each other,” said guard Kenny Love, “and we play for the name. We know we have to play our ‘A’ game each and every time. We know that if the other team beats us, that would make their season.”

Such focus might evolve into an undue amount of pressure but a kid coming to play basketball at Newman already knows the routine. It is demonstrated most dramatically during freshman tryouts. Incoming freshmen are put through two two-hour workouts, one in the morning and one in the afternoon. Except for water breaks, the pace is non-stop. Defensive drills, 5-on-5 workouts, proper technique repetition — the activity is intense and serves many purposes, the chief of which is the gauging of commitment.

“When I went through it,” Rodrigues said, “two guys in the morning session never came back for the afternoon session.”

Yes, Bonfigli is clear to his kids. Work hard. Pay attention all the time. This is not a country club.

“There’s no walk-throughs (casual practices) here,” said forward Kyle King said. “You’re there 100 percent. It’s almost like a job but it’s a fun job.”

By the time a kid makes Newman’s varsity, he has long been exposed and conditioned to playing in the spotlight. He knows full well what will happen when he steps onto the court. He may not even be able to hear his name during introductions, the jeering is so loud. No problem. A Newman basketball player knows how to handle the boos.

“It fuels us,” Rodrigues said.

And if the other team wins?

“They will celebrate right in your face,” said guard Tim McCullough.

And that doesn’t bother him.

“I see it as a sign of respect,” McCullough said.

If a kid is bothered by boos and jeers, Newman wouldn’t be a good fit for him. Newman kids circle the wagons when the verbal darts come. They become closer for it. They are in the same foxhole as it were and they claim this unity is a key to their success.

That unity will be tested Saturday in Sacramento. Pacific Hills is favored to beat Newman to be the Division 4 state champion if no other reason than it plays in Southern California. Southern California teams nearly always get the nod when playing teams from the north. Saturday will be no different.

“Do you think Pacific Hills has heard of Cardinal Newman?”

“Oh man, NO!” King said.

King said that with a smile on his face. As if it was refreshing to say something like that, since it so rarely happens. King didn’t appear bothered by the anonymity. In fact, he appeared curious. Newman? Unknown? Really? Wow, this state championship game is going be a lot of fun.

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

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