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IF YOU GO

What: No. 2 Cardinal Newman v. No. 15 Berean Christian

Where: Cardinal Newman

When: Wednesday, Feb. 24, 8 p.m.

The drill was simple, probably done scores of times before.

It was a full-court layup drill to 10 successful buckets. But there was a catch. Miss a ball or drop a ball and everyone starts again.

The Cardinal Newman girls basketball team had to restart six times on Monday. Six times until they got it right.

And when they did get it right? They ran.

“Get your mind right,” coach Monica Mertle told her squad before they took off on 10 sprints across the width of the floor.

And then they did the layup drill again. This time they needed only one try to make it perfect. No drops, no misses.

It’s that sharpness that Mertle wants out of the No. 2-seeded Cardinals when tonight they open the Division 4 North Coast Section tournament at home against Walnut Creek’s Berean Christian High School.

“The whole Sonoma County speed isn’t going to work no more, we’re gone,” she told her crew before yet another full-court drill.

For two seasons, “Sonoma County speed” hasn’t tested the Cardinals much.

Newman has won the North Bay League outright the past two years. And won is perhaps an understatement.

The Cardinals didn’t drop a league game this season. Didn’t lose one last year, either. The margin of victory this season? Forty-four points. Last year? Same.

Those numbers beg the question: How well does league play ready a Cardinal Newman squad that clearly has its sights set on a state championship?

“It’s not ideal,” Mertle said. “It is what it is. We can’t change who we play in league.”

This season, Mertle scheduled two nonleague games midseason to keep the squad challenged and focused.

“When we drive to Stockton on Martin Luther King Day, they know they are going to see some of the best basketball in the country,” she said.

They beat West Campus of Sacramento 63-37 on Jan. 9, and lost to West Clovis 57-49 on Jan. 18.

But the Cardinals look primed and ready to avenge a postseason departure last year in the CIF regional semifinals.

“It was disappointing,” Mertle said of the 54-50 loss to Brookside Christian of Stockton. “We were so close and I think we had every opportunity to win and we just didn’t. It didn’t work out that way. It’s definitely motivated us. We got a taste of what it’s like and we want it more and we want to get farther.”

The only thing more frightening than the Cardinals seeking vengeance? Their youth.

There isn’t a senior on this team.

“I feel like freshman year everyone is nervous,” said sophomore starter Tal Webb, who is averaging eight points, four rebounds and three assists per game. “I feel like this team is comfortable at the high level.”

Rounding out the starting five are junior center Lauren Walker, averaging nine points and nearly eight rebounds a game; junior forward Hailey Vice-Neat with 11 points and nearly six rebounds a game; sophomore guard Maiya Flores with a team-leading 12 points and three assists per game, and freshman point guard Avery Cargill with 10 points and four assists per game.

Flores said this squad, despite its youth, has the pieces to go deeper into the playoffs than last year’s group.

“Our goal is obviously to win state. That has been our goal from day one,” she said. “With this group, together, we have a great chance of winning it.”

Anything less would be a disappointment, Vice-Neat said.

“It would be a disappointment because it’s probably down to how bad we want it,” she said. “I know we are skilled enough.”

But the road will not be as smooth as the Cardinals’ last two months of games.

Salesian College Prep of Richmond is in the mix.

Salesian got the No. 1 seed and the first-round bye, likely thanks to it’s 68-55 win over McClatchy High of Sacramento. Cardinal Newman lost to McClatchy 43-35 on Dec. 29. Salesian is the same team that handed Cardinal Newman a semifinal loss in last year’s NCS tournament.

But Mertle said she likes that her team gets to suit up tonight and get started on what is clearly the true test of this team — the postseason.

“For the next five weeks you are spelling ‘State Championship’ in your cereal,” she told her squad before Monday’s practice.

“This is the real show right here,” she said. “This is what we have been waiting for.”

You can reach staff columnist Kerry Benefield at 526-8671 or kerry.benefield@pressdemocrat.com, on Twitter @benefield and on Instagram at kerry.benefield. Podcasting on iTunes “Overtime with Kerry Benefield.”

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