Top girls teams Cardinal Newman, Santa Rosa to face off in NBL

Santa Rosa's Emily Codding (21) drives to the basket while defended by Cardinal Newman's Hailey Vice-Neat (13) during the NBL Tournament girls basketball championship game in 2014. (Alvin Jornada / The Press Democrat)

Santa Rosa’s Emily Codding (21) drives to the basket while defended by Cardinal Newman’s Hailey Vice-Neat (13) during the NBL Tournament girls basketball championship game in 2014. (Alvin Jornada / The Press Democrat)

By PHIL BARBER

THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

The two coaches would never cop to it. Even the respective players might be reluctant to admit it. But Wednesday’s girls’ basketball game between Cardinal Newman and Santa Rosa shapes up to be exactly what everyone thought, and hoped, it would be — a battle for supremacy in the North Bay League.

Both teams are 5-0 in NBL play. Both are 12-5 overall. MaxPreps currently ranks the Cardinals 10th among all girls’ teams in the North Coast Section; the Panthers are No. 17. Co-champions a year ago, they seem to be on another collision course in 2014-15, with the first impact zone coming up Wednesday night when they tip off at Santa Rosa High.

“One thing we try to do, especially in league, because league is long — we take one game at a time,” Newman coach Monica Mertle said, channeling her inner Bill Belichick. “We respect all of our opponents, and each game is important. Santa Rosa just happens to be the next team we play.”

And perhaps the only team in the NBL with a chance to beat the Cardinals this year.

If that sounds a little overly dramatic for January, consider what Cardinal Newman has done so far this season. In five league games the Cardinals have beaten Montgomery by 42 points, Rancho Cotate by 63 points, Windsor by 19, Ukiah by 52 and Maria Carrillo by 60. Average margin of victory: about 47 points.

That sort of drubbing is rarely seen in this competitive league. It was Carrillo’s most lopsided defeat in more than two years, Monty’s worst loss in more than four. As for Rancho and Ukiah — who knows? Neither has lost that badly in at least a decade.

Clearly, Cardinal Newman isn’t just the top local girls’ team of this young season. It’s a sharknado of basketball.

This has been building for a couple years under Mertle. She has molded young rosters into surprisingly competitive teams, including the squad that went 24-8 and won two of three games against favored Santa Rosa last year. The Cardinals still boast youth. This year’s team has just three seniors — guards Kylie Kiech, Julia Bertolero and Megan McConnell — but they are highly experienced by now, as is junior forward Tiffany Salinas.

The rest of the Newman roster is composed of sophomores and freshmen.

“All I know is how much depth they have in their program,” Santa Rosa coach Jim Gomes said of the Cardinals. “They play eight or nine players without really dropping off. It’s a real plus for them. And they’re well coached, very disciplined.”

Mertle regularly plays nine girls in her rotation. Most games, everyone on the team sees action. That keeps the Cardinals rested and active. Starting positions are earned, and seven different girls have gotten starts thus far.

“The thing I like the most, we’re very balanced, very unselfish,” Mertle said. “If you look at the scores and stats, it can be anyone on a given night. We have eight or nine girls who can score in double figures on a given night. The girls don’t care who it is as long as we get there. That’s rare in high school basketball.”

In Santa Rosa, though, the Cardinals are likely to find their toughest league opponent.

The Panthers haven’t exactly been slouches this season. Four of their five NBL victories have been by 20-plus points. The other was a 12-point win at Ukiah.

And there is every reason to believe Santa Rosa will get better. The Panthers have a new coach in Gomes, who replaced the successful Steve Chisholm just before the season started, and were forced to retool after losing co-Redwood Empire Players of the Year Katie Daly and Morgan Bertsch, both of whom graduated last June.

Santa Rosa has hardly skipped a beat. Center Devin Murray and guard Kylie Oden were valuable complementary players last year as juniors. This season each has rounded out her game. Murray, always a strong inside presence, has worked on her post passing.

“She’s doing a great job of being unselfish,” Gomes said. “Where she has really improved is in making the players around her better.”

Oden has been the Panthers’ most accurate outside shooter for a couple years. She, too, has improved in a couple of significant areas. “One is the leadership,” Gomes said. “The other, she has become a better all-around player. She was a good shooter when I had her as a JV, but she has worked on her defense, her passing, and she’s become more of a complete player.”

Guards Emily Codding and Sara Howard played important roles for Santa Rosa as freshmen last year. That experience has paid off, and both have continued to develop.

There is a shadow hanging over the Panthers as they prepare for their biggest game of the year, though. Murray bumped heads with another player in last Thursday’s game against Maria Carrillo and suffered a concussion. It’s her second head injury of the season, and at least the third of her high school basketball career.

Gomes does not know whether Murray will be available against Cardinal Newman. The decision will be made by her family and doctors. If she is unable to play, it will be a big blow for a team trying to take the wind out of the Cardinals’ sails — and a blemish on what promises to be one of the best games of the year.

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

  • Bruce Kinnison

    Devin Murray a “valuable complementary player” last year? Did you go to any of the games? Devin, who earned first team All NBL and first team All Empire honors, was the most consistent player for SRHS and one of the very best players in the area.
    Losing her would be devastating for SRHS.
    Complementary? Hardly! Devin was and is a star!