CIF girls basketball: St. Vincent’s Miracle Mustangs

St. Vincent's Rebecca Dodele, right, high-fives her teammates before the start of the NCS Division 5 championship game against International. (ALVIN JORNADA / The Press Democrat)

St. Vincent’s Rebecca Dodele, right, high-fives her teammates before the start of the NCS Division 5 championship game against International. (ALVIN JORNADA / The Press Democrat)

By MICHAEL COIT
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

Running through the first St. Vincent girls practices four years ago, coach Jim Fagundes was struck by the skills and teamwork from a handful of freshmen.

That athletic bunch, teammates since fifth grade basketball, have anchored the most successful squad in St. Vincent history. Reaching the North Coast Section playoffs four consecutive seasons, the Mustangs this year have advanced to the first state playoffs in school history.

“We’re making history as we go. It definitely motivates us. We’re not done,” said Jacalyn Murphy.

After reaching the North Coast Section Division 5 final, the Mustangs play host to Ripon Christian in a first-round CIF Northern Division contest today. The Montgomery boys also are home with five other Empire teams going on the road.

Win or lose, St. Vincent’s arrival on prep basketball’s big stage marks a moment of triumph for a team of girls who truly learned to pull together.

Providing particular inspiration are the achievements of Murphy and Ellie O’Neill, courageous competitors overcoming debilitating afflictions.

Murphy copes with cystic fibrosis. O’Neill is a cancer survivor.

“Jacalyn and Ellie are two very unique girls. They’re just so humble,” said Rebecca Dodele. “They’re very inspirational. Nothing’s stopping them.”

Overcoming obstacles is something this St. Vincent team does well.

Beating favored St. Joseph Notre Dame in overtime and downing San Domenico in another section road playoff game didn’t surprise this group. The team plays with poise and purpose.

“We know each other’s strengths. We all contribute one way or another,” O’Neill said. “We weren’t ready for our season to be over.”

Playing basketball again is a bonus for O’Neill.

Growing up with many of the St. Vincent seniors, O’Neill joined the Mustangs to be with them after transferring from Petaluma High.

Battling melanoma, including two surgeries and a month of daily treatments, helped O’Neill appreciate life — and her teammates. “It was a rough year for me and I wanted a new start,” she said. “They’ve supported me. It has been amazing. They’re more like family to me.”

The addition of O’Neill made a very good St. Vincent team even better.

“We can read each other really well. We have those moments where it’s all there,” Murphy said.

Most compete in sports all year, from soccer and volleyball to softball and track.

“We’re a very athletic team. It helps tremendously,” Dodele said. “Our defense has always been good, but this year we’ve been more alert and on top of teams. From the start you could just tell our team was ready.”

With the ball St. Vincent has improved at pushing the pace, making the extra pass and taking better shots.

“We’re running the court well. We can get teams tired,” O’Neill said.

With skills and experience come higher expectations from both the players and their coaches.

“We knew this would be the year where we can go for it,” Fagundes said. “There’s not one kid on the team who wants the ball every single time. They just want to win and defensively they play collectively. It’s not something you build in one year.”

Such togetherness also is evident off the court. The St. Vincent seniors can be found at a favorite burrito and taco spot, stocking up on munchies at the supermarket, or swapping sleepovers.

“You have all these people who are your friends and teammates. You learn to trust each other off and on the court,” Dodele said. “We’re all like sisters.”

The girls like to say they randomly hang out.

“We do everything together, and we like food,” Murphy said.

So comfortable together are these seniors that Murphy shared her rigorous morning health routine at a sleepover this season.

Starting with an inhaler to increase air flow to her lungs, Murphy takes different medications and then goes through a procedure to loosen mucus in her lungs. She puts on a vest that plugs in and thumps against her chest.

“Some of my teammates tried on the vest. They’re totally supportive,” Murphy said. “Everybody on our team just has a really big heart.”

Playing with heart has been a strength St. Vincent will need in the state playoffs. While getting past sections was the team’s top goal, keeping the season going is their new focus.

“We knew we were good. We knew we could do more,” O’Neill said. “Now we’re just riding the wave.”

Michael Coit can be reached at Mike.Coit@pressdemocrat.com.

 

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