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Saturday’s North Coast Section title game boasts a marquee matchup rarely seen in high school basketball, especially with girls: two 6-foot-5 centers facing off in the paint.

Cardinal Newman’s Lauren Walker, a junior, will face the first opponent equal to her height this season, Salesian’s Angel Jackson, who is just a freshman for the Richmond basketball powerhouse school.

Salesian, the No. 1 seed, is familiar with the NCS Division 4 title game, having played for the past three years in the championship matchup against St. Mary’s.

No. 2 Newman, which downed third-seeded St. Mary’s this week to reach the final, is riding a wave of success that has been building since the formerly all-boys Catholic school welcomed Ursuline girls into the school five years ago.

Each year under coach Monica Mertle, the Cardinals have improved their win-loss record and advanced further in the regional and state playoffs.

“Over the past decade or so, it’s been Salesian and St. Mary’s,” she said. “When you think of the top teams in Division 4, it’s Salesian and St. Mary’s. So it’s a huge step for us to be considered in the top two.”

The top two teams face off Saturday at 5 p.m. at Albany High School for the section title. Both teams have qualified for the state playoffs, which will be played later this month.

Winning tonight would erase a heartbreaking 57-55 loss to Salesian in the NCS semifinals last year.

While the two centers duel down low, Newman’s not-so-secret weapon may be the 6-foot-3 Hailey Vice-Neat, who can shoot the 3-pointer and stretch out a defense.

“They are a very good team, very well-coached,” Salesian coach Stephen Pezzola said of the Cardinals.

“They’ve got super size. They have all the pieces: shooters, guards, size. We have a 6-5 player, but not 6-3. And she’s a wing player. That’s a tough matchup for anybody.”

Two of the Pride have committed to Division 1 schools, 5-9 Minyon Moore and 5-11 Jordan Hobson, both of whom play guard and wing. Moore averages nearly 20 points a game, while Hobson and Jackson each add almost 9 per game.

Newman spreads the scoring out more, with Walker averaging 10 points and 8 rebounds per game and Vice-Neat adding 11 points and 6 rebounds. Guards Maiya Flores and Avery Cargill both average 11 points a game.

The play of the guards may be key. Salesian is quick and presses hard, forcing steals and converting them into points.

So protecting the ball and limiting turnovers will be huge for the Cardinals, Mertle said.

Newman, which breezed through the North Bay League undefeated, faced little in the way of full-court or half-court pressing this season.

“That why we have a ridiculously challenging non-league schedule,” she said. “In non-league, we go against the teams that press every single game.

“The more you see pressure, the easier it is to be effective against it. But if you haven’t seen it, it catches you off guard.”

Pezzola agreed that will be key: “Their guards are very steady. We usually get after the guards, so that’s going to be the difference.”

Depth may also play a significant factor for both teams.

Newman, which has no seniors on the squad, typically plays almost all of its roster.

Pezzola said he has played every player in every game this year.

“They can all contribute,” he said.

Winning its first section championship would be a milestone for Newman and Mertle.

The 2002 Ursuline Bears were the last Redwood Empire school to win a large-school girls basketball section championship. Mertle was a junior that year.

Before that, the last local big school to become section champs was the 1989 Healdsburg team, according to California Interscholastic Federation records.

Tomales, Rincon Valley Christian and Sonoma Academy have all won Division 6 championships since 2009.

Mertle said her girls’ goal this season has been to improve over last year. Getting through the NCS semifinal game last week achieved that first step.

“Progressing to the NCS championship game was something we’ve never done,” she said. “Then, once we get past sectionals, we want to get farther in the state tournament.”

The Cardinals have already clinched a spot in the CIF NorCal tournament, but winning a section championship would put Newman in a better home-court situation for the state tourney.

You can reach Lori A. Carter at 521-5470 or lori.carter@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @loriacarter.

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