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!’”