By KERRY BENEFIELD
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
On a team loaded with talent and firepower, one person has to be the floor leader, one person has to be the coach on the court, one person has to deftly manage egos, keep the ball moving and the play flowing.
On the most dominant team in the North Bay, senior Kylie Kiech was that player.
The leader on a Cardinal Newman squad that went undefeated in the North Bay League, put away opponents all season long and made a run which ended in upset in the CIF NorCal basketball semifinals, Kiech is The Press Democrat’s Large-School Player of the Year.
In NBL play, Kiech averaged 12 points, seven rebounds and six assists. Good stuff, right? It’s even better when you consider that Kiech played in less than half the game in 11 of the team’s 16 league and league tournament games.
Possibly the tightest competition Kiech faced all year long wasn’t on the court, but in the battle for this award.
North Bay League coaches called it a draw and named Kiech and Santa Rosa’s sharpshooting senior Kylie Oden their co-MVPs. Oden’s effort this season certainly made it a tough call for the All-Empire MVP nod. She averaged 14.7 points, 4.4 rebounds and 3.6 assists in her team’s 21-9 season and 12-2 finish in the NBL. And she did it largely without the services of Devin Murray, Santa Rosa’s returning first-team All-Empire center who was out the majority of the season with multiple concussions.
But it was Kiech, with her scoring and distributing, as well as her floor leadership, who steered the ship for Newman — by far the most dominant team around.
“Kylie Kiech was the straw that stirred the drink on the best team north of the Golden Gate,” said Sonoma Valley head coach Sil Coccia.
Ask Cardinal Newman head coach Monica Mertle what Kiech means to that team and she talks about four years, not one.
In order to put in perspective what the Cardinal Newman girls basketball program has become, it is helpful to look from what it was born.
Cardinal Newman only went co-ed four years ago. Lots of coaches and players like to say a program was built from nothing, but Newman’s current dominance has truly started from scratch. There is no storied tradition, no shimmering past to reflect upon.
Mertle puts the credit for Cardinal Newman’s emergence as a powerhouse largely with Kiech, a starter with the Cardinals since she walked into the gym as a freshman — the very first year of the girls basketball team’s existence.
“She has carried this program on her back for four years,” Mertle said. “Her leadership has been fantastic those four years.”
And the road hasn’t always been easy for a burgeoning Newman squad. The Cardinals were 7-7 in the NBL Kiech’s freshman year. Same story her sophomore year, the season Mertle made the young guard a captain.
“Even as a freshman, she wasn’t backing down from anyone,” Mertle said. “She would never quit. No matter what the situation was, she would never quit.”
In her junior campaign, that feistiness began to pay dividends: the Cardinals went 13-1, were co-NBL champs and won the league tournament.
“That was the bang at the end of the year,” Kiech said. “We finally got it, we finally did it.”
“It’s hard when, two years in a row, we’re getting pushed around,” she said. “Oh my gosh, when is this going to end? Finally you push through the barrier and you are starting to be on top.
“Now it’s my turn to be on the other side,” she said. “It’s satisfying.”
This season, it wasn’t even close.
Newman dispatched crosstown rival Santa Rosa 66-33, 65-43 and 71-30 this season. Their average margin of victory in 14 league games? Thirty-nine points.
“Newman was so loaded,” Santa Rosa head coach Jim Gomes said. “She made the other girls better on the court. She made good passes and she hit the open player. She made their shots easier because she saw the open court.”
Sure, Newman was loaded to the gills with height and athleticism, but Kiech handed out assists and kept that ship running — no easy task when there is so much firepower that naming a starting five is a tossup involving teenage pride.
And while serving others, she managed to put up rock-solid numbers herself.
“She could do anything on a given night,” Mertle said. “There were nights where she scored a lot of points; there were nights where she hooked people up, making them better; there were nights where she was our leading rebounder.”
Kiech has the intangibles that separate the good from the very good players — she finds a way.
“They are going to find some way to get you, find some way to hurt you,” Mertle said.
In four short years, Kiech has had a major hand in making Cardinal Newman girls basketball winners. Not only winners, but dominant winners.
“It would not have happened without her,” Mertle said.
You can reach Kerry Benefield at 526-8671 or email@example.com, on Twitter @benefield and on Instagram at kerry.benefield.