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Basketball state champs

Girls Division 4

1997 Rincon Valley Christian def. Christian (El Cajon), 53-38

1992 Ursuline def. Santa Ynez, 61-59

Boys Division 3

1984 Cloverdale def. Pasadena Poly, 53-52

1983 Cloverdale def. Crossroads (Santa Monica), 71-64

Basketball state title contenders

Girls Division 3

2000 Bishop Montgomery (Torrance) def. Petaluma, 57-45

1992 Brea Olinda def. Healdsburg, 47-44

1991 Palos Verdes def. Healdsburg, 58-42

Boys Division 2

1998 Santa Margarita (Rancho Santa Margarita) def. Montgomery, 61-52

Boys Division 4

2013 Pacific Hills (West Hollywood) def. Cardinal Newman, 58-52

2007 Campbell Hall (North Hollywood) def. Cardinal Newman, 70-34

1996 Washington Union (Fresno) def. Cardinal Newman, 56-42

1989 Santa Clara (Oxnard) def. Cardinal Newman, 62-49

Cardinal Newman girls basketball coach Monica Mertle keeps a couple of old photos of female athletes competing in dresses.

Not just any female athletes — those from Ursuline High School, the bloodline of the Newman girls today.

As the 2015-16 Cardinals compete Saturday for the California Interscholastic Federation Division 4 state championship in Sacramento, Mertle makes sure her team knows what is before them, and what came before them.

“History is important,” said the 2003 graduate of Ursuline, the then-sister school of Cardinal Newman boys Catholic school in north Santa Rosa.

Five years ago, Ursuline, founded in 1880 by a group of nuns from Ohio, folded under financial pressures. The private school that educated generations of young women in Santa Rosa for 130 years closed its doors after the 2010-11 school year.

While Newman quickly announced it would become co-ed and welcome girls, the Ursuline Bears’ athletic tradition ended that school year.

Mertle, Newman’s girls coach for all five years of the basketball program, takes out those old photos and reminds her team how far they’ve come.

“It’s important to know how women’s sports have progressed, how much they still need to evolve,” she said Thursday as the Cardinals held their final practice before boarding the bus to Sacramento.

The Cardinal Newman girls basketball team has already blazed a trail, regardless of the outcome of Saturday morning’s state championship game.

“This could be a once-in-a-lifetime experience,” said team co-captain Maiya Flores, a sophomore guard.

In five years, the Newman team has improved its win-loss record and progressed further through the playoffs every season.

Even in that first year, when they were admittedly a “mediocre” 7-7 in the North Bay League and 13-15 overall, Mertle set her sights on a state title run.

“We’ve talked about it,” she said. “It’s never been a doubt. We’ve discussed it since day one. They laid the foundation. Every player though this program has had a hand in getting us here.”

“Here” is Sacramento’s Sleep Train Arena, home of the NBA’s Sacramento Kings, where the Cardinals will take on the Antelope Valley Antelopes in the title game Saturday morning. Thousands of fans will be there and it will be raucous.

The Cardinals have achieved rare altitude. Only four teams from Sonoma County have won state basketball championships. Only eight others have advanced to the state title game. Four of those were Cardinal Newman boys teams.

The 1997 Rincon Valley Christian girls won the state title behind future WNBA player Erin Buescher’s stellar performance.

Before that, the 1992 Ursuline team won state. And the Cloverdale boys won back-to-back state titles in 1983 and 1984.

To put those dates in perspective: none of the current Cardinals was born when there last was a state champ from Sonoma County.

“Honestly, it hasn’t sunk in yet,” said Avery Cargill, a freshman guard. “The feeling of it actually happening is so unreal.”

Several on the team said schoolmates, friends from other schools, far-flung relatives and even total strangers have been wishing them well.

“It’s not just at Newman, it’s Sonoma County as a whole,” said junior forward Taylor Hextrum on Thursday morning. “Me and Tal (Webb) and Lauren (Walker) were at the checkout and the checkout person said, ‘We saw you in the paper. Good luck!’”

Flores called this season a dream come true. She’s played basketball since grade school and has played with teammate Britta Irvine since the third grade.

“Ever since the fifth or sixth grade, we’ve worked for this, personally,” she said. “And we’ve worked so hard as a program to get here in such a short period of time.”

Cardinal Newman Principal Graham Rutherford said the school community has embraced the girls and shown tremendous support during this historic playoff run.

A prayer card and custom T-shirts for boosters who ride to Sacramento on the fan bus Saturday morning were printed up to encourage the team.

“It’s the reward for something they’ve been working toward since last season,” Rutherford said.

“They know we care very much. It’s always more thrilling that it’s people you know, share classes with, people you feel connected with,” he said. “We’ve watched them come in and grow, to have them reach such success is great.

“They are the first girls team to take something to this level, and that feels really good for them.”

Though she’s just a teenager, Hextrum is already learning what it feels like to be looked up to.

When she was young, she remembers going to local high school games and watching the older girls compete, being inspired to play.

“Now, we’re giving that excitement to them,” she said. “It’s being a role model — a positive role model.”

Cargill had a talk with her father the other night about the magnitude of the game.

“He said, ‘Of course you’re going to be nervous, but you don’t need to be scared. Take the opportunity and soak it all in,’” she said.

Flores’ father, Mark, coached his daughter until the eighth grade and has worked with Mertle in AAU basketball teams Maiya has played on. The girls’ families have become bonded during this journey, he said.

“Win, lose or draw, they’ve gotten to accomplish a lot of things they’ll remember for the rest of their lives,” he said.

“I’ve always said to Maiya, ‘You’re not going to remember a lot of the games, but you’ll remember the camaraderie and friendships you’ve built. When all is said and done, you’re going to miss that part more than you will playing.’”

Mertle, who played on a section championship team in 2002 during her junior year, said at Ursuline there was a tradition and an expectation of success. But there is no such history for girls at Newman.

“The thing that makes this special is that they’re trailblazing,” she said of the current team, which has no seniors on the roster. “We’re going into uncharted territory. There is no ‘way to do it.’ There is no reference point to look back to 15 years ago.

“They are doing everything for the first time. They’ve had to grow into leaders,” she said. “But in the future, we’ll reference this time.”

Years from now, the girls will be able to walk into the Newman gym and see their names on the wall.

The only decision yet to me made is what color scheme the banner will be: red with gold for a loss, or gold with red for bringing home a state title.

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

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