Cardinals primed for a banner year?


CHRISTOPHER CHUNG / The Press Democrat Cardinal Newman basketball coach Tom Bonfigli instructs his players during practice in Santa Rosa, on Wednesday, March 20, 2013.

CHRISTOPHER CHUNG / The Press Democrat
Cardinal Newman basketball coach Tom Bonfigli instructs his players during practice in Santa Rosa, on Wednesday, March 20, 2013.

The Cardinal Newman High School basketball program is steeped in success, with the banners wallpapering John Fitzgerald Gym to prove it.

And yet the Catholic school north of Santa Rosa has never won a state boys basketball championship.

If the Cardinals can beat Pacific Hills of West Hollywood on Saturday at Sleep Train Arena in Sacramento, they will join the Cloverdale teams of 1983 and 1984 as the North Coast’s only boys’ winners.

“I really like this group of guys,” said Craig McMillan, the star of those Cloverdale championship teams and now coach of the men’s team at Santa Rosa Junior College.

“They’re well-coached, disciplined. They play basketball the right way, unselfish,” he said. “They have the characteristics of a team that can make this kind of run.”

The Cardinals have come close before, making it to the Division 4 title game three times. They lost each time, joining Fresno High and University High of San Francisco as the only boys’ programs with 0-3 records in the state championship round.

Lose this Saturday and Cardinal Newman will be the Buffalo Bills of North Bay basketball, a very good program that seems destined for second place.

Of course, most schools would love to make it this far. Since the California Interscholastic Federation initiated the state title format in 1983, only 11 teams from Sonoma, Lake and Mendocino counties — boys and girls — have played for the championship. And only four have won: the Cloverdale boys in 1983 and 1984, the Ursuline girls in 1992 and the Rincon Valley Christian girls in 1997.

That’s four state champs in 30 years, and none in the past 15.

That long?” Lesley DuBois gasped. “I feel so old!”

DuBois, who played on the 1997 RVC team, is 32, and the memories remain vivid for the Windsor resident who works at Healdsburg Bar & Grill and takes care of her 4-year-old son.

“It wasn’t necessarily the best game we ever played,” DuBois said. “But we stuck together and got support from all our fans, and we won. Just getting ready in the locker room — they had these nice, carpeted locker rooms — and getting the royal treatment, it was amazing.”

One of DuBois’ former RVC teammates, Anna (Yamamoto) Waller, recalled her amazement at not seeing a wall directly behind the basket in the spacious arena.

Now the girls’ volleyball coach at Cardinal Newman, Waller cites the state-championship run and experience playing alongside future WNBA player Erin Buescher as an empowering experience.

“Getting that far in high school and seeing what that level of play is — it’s the best of the best in the state.”

“Even now it gives me confidence, knowing what it takes to win at that level,” she said. “I definitely reflect on that team, and on Erin Buescher, what she meant as a leader. I talk about her to my team every year, what a leader and a great athlete can do for a team.”

The state tournament was a new concept, with just three divisions, when the Cloverdale boys ventured to the Los Angeles Sports Arena for their 1983 game. They had won the NorCal tournament the year before, but had nowhere higher to climb. This time, they captured a state title — and they got another one in the Oakland Coliseum the next year.

Craig McMillan played on those championship teams as a junior and senior. He went on to become a standout player at the University of Arizona, starting at guard for the Wildcats during their Final Four appearance in 1988. He has coached overseas and at major colleges, and has piloted one of the best junior college programs in the state at Santa Rosa Junior College. But the state-title runs in high school haven’t been bumped from the list of McMillan’s proudest moments.

“Living in Cloverdale and being around the people I played with, playing with my father (coach John McMillan), it was among my best experiences in basketball,” he said.

The Cardinal Newman boys would love a slice of that, and so would the school’s rabid alumni and student body. Current Cardinal Newman coach Tom Bonfigli got his squad to the championship game in 1989, but fell to Santa Clara of Oxnard, 62-49, at Ventura College — essentially a home game for the Saints. Pat Fitzgerald coached the Cardinals to the final rung in 1996, but they lost 56-42 to Washington Union of Fresno at the site of this year’s game, then called ARCO Arena.

And in 2007, coach Russ Gardiner got his team to ARCO for another shot. It did not go well. The opponent, Campbell Hall of North Hollywood, was led by junior Jrue Holiday, now an NBA all-star player. Campbell Hall dismantled Cardinal Newman 70-34.

“There’s no bragging from that,” said Michael Santos, who played on that Newman team and later at Santa Clara. “But playing at ARCO, getting there was an accomplishment. We won NorCals. It’s definitely cool looking back. I played against a guy, he’s younger than me and he’s an NBA all-star.”

Santos admitted that he would trade the memory of a famous opponent for a victory in that game. Unable to rewrite history, the Cardinals still hunt their first basketball championship — a fact not lost on the current players, who say that the legacy is an ever-present teammate when you play at Cardinal Newman.

“It’s all about the school,” said senior guard Tim McCullough, who had an older brother at Newman when the basketball team had its near miss in 2007. “It’s all about the name across the front of our jersey. Because the program’s bigger than any of us are.”

The fact that no Redwood Empire team has been to the big game since then perhaps should come as no surprise. “Everything has to line up right — the seeding, the matchups, the brackets,” Bonfigli said. “And everything matched up right for us this year. I mean, we didn’t have to leave our gym in the section until the final, and we didn’t leave our gym (until the final) in the NorCals.”

The Cardinals also got an assist from the California Interscholastic Federations this year. In an effort to crown a true overall champion (and perhaps increase ticket sales in the process), the group added an Open division that ignores the size of the school. Salesian of Richmond, a team that drubbed Cardinal Newman by 31 points in this year’s playoffs, opted for the Open bracket.

If Newman’s path to Sacramento was clearer with Salesian out of the way, the next hurdle is a high one. Pacific Hills is ranked 15th overall in the state, according to MaxPreps, while Cardinal Newman is 56th. Still, having beaten Corning, Soquel and Archbishop Riordan of San Francisco in the NorCal playoffs, the Cardinals would seem to have a fair shot at knocking off Pacific Hills for the title.

McMillan, the SRJC coach, is optimistic. “They’re talented, but they’re the type of team that can play above its talent level,” he said.

Cardinal Newman will hold a pep rally Friday, and is chartering at least one rooters’ bus to Sleep Train Arena for Saturday’s noon game. Whether the support can translate to victory and bring that long-awaited title back to Santa Rosa remains to be seen. You can be sure of one thing. The Cardinals know how much is riding on this game.

“Getting the big banner will always be remembered around here,” senior Kenny Love said.

You can reach Staff Writer Phil Barber at 521-5263 or

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