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Cardinals undaunted by formidable Salesian


Tom Bonfigli told his guys Salesian was quick and fast. His guys, from looking at game film, could tell Salesian — Cardinal Newman's opponent tonight in the Division 4 NCS final — was quick and fast. Someone who couldn't tell a basketball from a potato chip could tell Salesian was quick and fast. It was that obvious. OK, so much for Basketball Appreciation 101.

But Newman needed to practice against that quickness and speed. But how do you duplicate that? After all...

"Salesian is the best high school team I've seen since I came back to coaching seven years ago," Bonfigli said.

Bonfigli thought about it and thought about it and came up with the only answer that made even a lick of sense.

At Thursday's and Friday's practices, for 45 minutes at each practice, Newman's five starters ran their offense against 10 players. That's right: 5-on-10. Bonfigli wanted to create as much as possible the sense that Salesian's basketball players were everywhere.

"It's their ability to recover on defense," Bonfigli said. It's the impressive athleticism that moves guys from here... to there... and then over there... in about the same time it took to write this sentence. The discipline to move like that can be taught. The skill to do it, however, is pure gift, innate, uncompromised by gravity or plodding coordination.

There was only one problem.

"In our drills if we lost the ball," Bonfigli said, "we would take the ball out of bounds and run the play again. In the game, if we don't take care of the ball, they're down the court on a fast break."

Bonfigli rarely has ever resorted to outmanning his offense in practice to impress upon them the speed of their opponent. Once he did an 5-on-8, though he can't remember the opponent that prompted it. This is a rare moment because Salesian is a rare team.

Defending CIF state champions in the Open Division, and state Open champs two of the last three years, Salesian is a wolf in sheep's clothing — a D4 team as good, if not better, than schools four, five, even six times its size. At 29-3, Salesian is ranked No. 5 in the state. On a 19-game winning streak, Salesian has had only three of those 19 opponents finish within 10 points of them. They have won their NCS playoff games by an average of 29 points.

"I told my guys there will be times in which they make a spectacular play," Bonfigli said. "They will hit the 25-footer. They will make the monster slam. Just go with it. Don't overreact."

Don't overreact. Period. Against Salesian. It's tempting. It will require a steel will. It will require a little bit of amnesia.

The Cardinals can't remember, or spend very little time remembering, that Salesian has four starters who are going to play D1 NCAA basketball. Forward Jabari Bird is the signature player of a signature group. Bird, at 6-foot-6, is a McDonald's All-American, one of 24. Magic Johnson was a McDonald's All-American, as was Jason Kidd, Michael Jordan, LeBron James, Shaquille O'Neal and Kevin Garnett. Bird is going to Cal in the fall.

Guard Mario Dunn is going to Montana. Guard Markel Leonard is headed to Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. Forward Jermaine Edmond Jr. is being courted by Arizona State, San Jose State, UC Irvine.

"I know Bird gets all the attention and he is a great player," said Bonfigli, who has seen Salesian three times in person and watched 16 game films of the Pride. "But Dunn is the glue who holds everything together. I'm really surprised every college in the country didn't come after him. Maybe it's because he's only 6-feet."

Bonfigli said he finds Newman in the unusual position of being an underdog and even in the more unusual position that a defeat in the NCS D4 final would not damage their ranking in next week's NorCals.

"With a victory Salesian is going to the Open Division next week," Bonfigli said. "That would mean we would be either a No. 1 or No. 2 seed in Division 4."

Bill Mellis, Salesian's coach, believes his team will play in the Open Division even if the Pride should lose to Newman, the game to be played in Albany.

"I don't think a loss would knock us out of the Open Division," Mellis said. "We beat Archbishop Mitty (No. 6 team in the state by 21 points). We beat Sheldon (No. 12 in the state). We beat De La Salle (25-4)."

Newman's players know this is an opponent unlike any other they have faced this season. That intrigues them, for all true competitors move toward a challenge, not away from it.

"We get a chance to prove how good we are," said Newman center Corey Hammell.

So how does Bonfigli portray Salesian to his 29-2 team? For one thing he doesn't try to trick them.

"With the internet they can see the game videos and the stats and the schedules," Bonfigli said. "So I keep it simple. If you get an 10-to-12-foot open shot or a layup, take it. Don't force it. Stay constantly vigilant; they can go from four down to being up by 15 just like that. Play good defense."

Especially, don't get caught up in the pace Salesian sets. Play aggressive but under control. And don't give Salesian too much credit.

"We think we know how to play basketball," Bonfigli said. "I say that not out of arrogance but out of confidence. We have a good team and we're not going down there to get smashed."

But if Newman were to lose to Salesian, Bonfigli can always tell his kids they just lost to a team that very well could win the state championship in the Open Division.

"I think they already know that," Bonfigli said.

For more North Bay sports go to Bob Padecky's blog at padecky.blogs.pressdemocrat.com. You can reach Staff Columnist Bob Padecky at 521-5223 or bob.padecky@pressdemocrat.com.