NBL girls basketball: Panthers on the prowl

Santa Rosa point guard Katie Daly is the reigning player of the year. (CONNER JAY / The Press Democrat)

Santa Rosa point guard Katie Daly is the reigning player of the year. (CONNER JAY / The Press Democrat)


The Santa Rosa High girls’ most recent game against North Bay League rival Cardinal Newman was a shrill wake-up call. Tonight’s rematch at Santa Rosa JC’s Haehl Pavilion will show whether the Panthers have answered that call.

“Absolutely,” Santa Rosa junior forward Devin Murray agreed. “It just shows that we need to take every opponent seriously and take every game like it’s our last game.”

The Panthers cruised into the Feb. 13 game at Cardinal Newman with a 24-1 record, the No. 1 spot in MaxPreps’ North Coast Section Division 1 rankings and, it seemed, a lock on the NBL title. But the streaking Cardinals pulled off a 62-53 upset to grab a share of the league banner. The NCS will recognize the winner of tonight’s game as NBL champion, which should translate to more home games in the section playoffs.

Certainly, there was an extenuating circumstance in the loss. Panthers center Morgan Bertsch, the team’s leading scorer and rebounder, hit her head on the court after being fouled, and left with a concussion. Bertsch briefly lost consciousness and still does not remember the impact. She missed the NBL tournament opener, a victory against Windsor, and is questionable for tonight’s game.

Bertsch is an important part in the Santa Rosa machine, but her absence can’t fully explain the Panthers’ letdown that night.

“I just feel like we weren’t prepared for the game mentally,” Murray said. “It’s a big game, you know, when you’re playing against another team that’s No. 2 in the league. You’ve got to be prepared mentally, and even with what happened to Morgan, I don’t think we played our best game.”

Overcoming injuries

Considering how well the Panthers have overcome injuries this season, maybe it’s a surprise — or a credit to Cardinal Newman — that they didn’t adapt better to Bertsch’s head injury.

Sophomore Mireya Lopez, a backup to Bertsch in the post, tore her ACL in a summer-league game and had surgery in early December; she will not play this year. Maddie Taylor, penciled in as a starter at shooting guard, missed 10 games with a dislocated shoulder. Murray hurt her knee in the championship round of the Terra Nova Tiger Classic in December and missed a couple of games. Bertsch missed a Jan. 28 start against Montgomery with strained ligaments in her thumb, and has still been playing with her right hand taped. The team also was assaulted by a major flu bug recently.

Somehow, Santa Rosa played through all of it and hardly broke stride before the loss to Newman.

“The bench had a lot to do with it, different players stepping up in different roles when others were injured and sick,” coach Steve Chisholm said. “And I think just the makeup of the team as a whole. These girls are competitors.”

Balance across the lineup

They are talented, too. And exceptionally balanced across the lineup.

The Panthers have a true post player in the 6-foot-4 Bertsch, an accomplished point guard in Katie Daly (the reigning All-Empire Player of the Year), a battling rebounder and scorer in Murray and a deadly 3-point sniper in Kylie Oden. All four carry double-digit scoring averages. And Santa Rosa has enough quality role players and subs to make it all run like clockwork.

It sometimes seems like Chisholm ordered a collection of perfect parts from a catalog.

“It’s more or less just luck of the draw,” he said. “We’ve been fortunate that we’ve had these kids come to Santa Rosa High School, and everything just kind of fell into place.”

Once in the program, the Panthers are taught to turn up the energy. They start and end every practice with a withering fast-break drill — three girls at a time, weaving up and down the court, little rest between turns — and they run a lot more than most girls’ teams during games. Chisholm calls the transition game their best offense. They press a lot on defense, too.

“That’s part of our game, to run the floor,” Bertsch said. “We’re a really good fast-breaking team, and I think that really does help. It gets us to look up the floor, to long passes that can get us three passes to the basket. … Once you get the rebound, you find Katie, then you look up the floor. And Katie’s really good at finding the person who’s open, or also she’s really good at slowing down if she feels like it’s not an open pass.”

It has made the Panthers a popular ticket at a school not known for across-the-board athletic prowess.

“Recently we’ve been getting more fans,” said Taylor, a senior captain. “We used to not have that many fans. But since we’ve been winning, and since that (Jan. 24 Cardinal) Newman game, a lot more people have been coming. … It fires us up.”

Panthers steadily improve

Chisholm has quietly built one of the strongest programs in the Redwood Empire. In his first season — 2006-07 — the Panthers struggled to a 3-11 mark in the NBL. The next year they improved to 7-7 … and then 9-5 … and then 11-3 in 2009-10.

Over the past four years, Santa Rosa has a cumulative record of 95-24, going 50-6 in league action.

This year’s squad is exceptionally close off the court. Chisholm encourages the bond by taking his team to a summer basketball camp each year; last year’s was at Humboldt State. But the girls take the lead after that, regularly getting together for team dinners and sleepovers.

“We basically see each other all the time,” Daly said. “And we don’t get sick of each other, so it’s nice. … We fight. We fight like sisters. But it’s all good.”

The off-court fraternizing has resulted in a deep level of trust among the players. That has been a source of strength for the Panthers in close games. They’re hoping it gives them an edge against Cardinal Newman in a league tournament final that actually means something this year.

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

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