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After a 2½-hour drive, the Ursuline girls basketball players unpacked themselves from the aging Ford school vans they had used to get to Placer High School in Auburn. And then the Bears saw their opponents. The girls from Colfax High had arrived in limousines. Young ladies were sticking their hands through the open sunroofs to flash the “We’re No. 1” sign.

The Ursuline girls stood there in silence. This was a CIF NorCal semifinal playoff game in 1992. The stakes were high, and the Bears were a little nervous to begin with. They didn’t know how to respond to this show of swagger. Then Brenna Nurmi spoke up.

Nurmi wasn’t even a full-fledged member of the team. Mark Rigby, Ursuline’s 35-year-old coach, had elevated the pint-sized cross-country runner from the JV basketball squad as an extra practice player for the postseason. Now, as the Colfax players styled their entrance, Nurmi broke the silence. “Let’s send ’em home in Pintos,” she said.

The Bears cracked up, breaking the tension. And then they did just what Nurmi suggested, sending Colfax and the next two opponents home in metaphorical lemons.

When the Cardinal Newman girls take the court at Sleep Train Arena in Sacramento on Saturday morning, they will be attempting to capture the school’s first state championship in girls basketball. But it would be a stretch to call it the first title for the program. Because Ursuline High, the girls campus that shut its doors in 2011 and was absorbed by sibling school Cardinal Newman, won it all in ’92.

“Even if it’s not the same name, it’s the same sense of community and history and tradition,” said Jessica Mazeau, a junior and the starting point guard on the 1992 team. “Even though they’re not wearing the same name across the chest as we were, I still feel very connected to it. When I read about them or see a Facebook post, I get really excited for them.”

One big difference between 1992 and 2016: the gym.

“We had that janky little court, that not-full-size court,” recalled Shannon Crouse, a senior forward for the ’92 team. “That was my home court, where they played bingo. We’d show up 9 a.m. Saturday for practice and it’d be full of smoke.”

“We knew where the dead spots were on the floor, and we tried to force you that direction,” Rigby, now 59, said with a laugh. “It was very loud. It was very intimidating. We’d come out and we might half-court trap you with the short sidelines. … That stage came up on you really quickly if you were going for a driving layup.”

Ursuline’s state championship didn’t materialize out of thin air. The 1990 team had lost to Campolindo in the CIF NorCal championship game. The 1991 squad may have been the most talented of the era, but the chemistry was off. The team also moved up to Division 2 that year, adding another hurdle.

In ’92 Ursuline dropped back down to Division 4 and was primed for a deep run. By the time the Bears had finished the regular season that year, they had won 35 consecutive North Bay League games.

The hub of the team was forward Joy Durand, a spectacular athlete who also played soccer and threw the discus at Ursuline. Rigby, who has coached the Sonoma State women’s basketball team for 19 seasons, is highly attuned to the Redwood Empire girls basketball scene, and he calls Durand one of the four best ever to play here, along with Cheree Tappin (Healdsburg), Erin Buescher (Rincon Valley Christian) and Amanda Johnson (Maria Carrillo).

“When we would get a double-digit lead, she wouldn’t even score,” Rigby said. “She’d make sure others on the team got the ball. But when it was winning time, she was gonna do something. She was either gonna make a basket, she was gonna get a rebound, she was gonna get a steal, she was gonna defend. It was always like she was in slow motion and everybody was going too fast.”

After losing to Ursuline in the 1992 North Coast Section playoffs, Marin Catholic coach Rick DeMartini told the Press Democrat, “If you can stop Durand, you can hurt Ursuline.”

It was true. But the real strength of that Bears team was that stopping Durand didn’t guarantee you victory.

“What I thought was really cool about that team was that every individual stepped up when needed,” said Mazeau, 41, who now teaches PE at Ralston Middle School in Belmont and helps run a nonprofit softball organization called the Cal Nuggets. “Different people stepped up in different games.”

The Bears would need every bit of that balance during their grueling playoff run.

The first big test came in the latter stages of the NCS playoffs, when Ursuline had to play three games in three nights. The last of those, the section championship game against San Rafael, went to double overtime and the Bears finally wore down. Durand was fouled with four seconds left and her team trailing 54-52; she made the first free throw but missed the second, and Ursuline had to settle for second place.

“They got home seed, and we got to travel all over Northern California,” said Durand, 41, who lives in Santa Rosa and works as an attorney for Dickenson, Peatman & Fogarty.

The first round of the NorCal playoffs sent the Bears to faraway Gridley, and they cruised to a 65-48 victory as Durand and Crouse combined for 47 points. That set up the game against Colfax in the sold-out Placer gym, which had raised stands and was so hot and stuffy that several players, including Durand, became lightheaded and had to exit the building for fresh air. Mazeau tallied a career-high 18 points in that game and Durand scored with seven seconds left to nail down a 64-62 win.

In the NorCal final, Ursuline got another crack at San Rafael, this time at UC Davis. Durand had 23 points and 12 rebounds, Crouse took over in the second half and the Bears prevailed 44-39.

The state championship game against SoCal champion Santa Ynez was played at the same venue in which the Cardinal Newman girls will compete Saturday, though it was called ARCO Arena then.

“I just remember how fascinating that was, and being nervous but excited,” said Crouse, who lives in Portland, Ore., and works as an educational consultant for a publishing company. “I think everyone had nerves, and we were shaky. We were not playing as well as we usually did.”

But Crouse proved to be Ursuline’s secret weapon against Santa Ynez. The two teams had faced off at a tournament in Santa Barbara three months earlier, but Crouse was sick and hardly saw the court. Though Durand hammered Santa Ynez for 31 points in that game, the Bears lost 51-40.

When the teams tipped off at ARCO on March 21, 1992, the opponent swarmed Durand. Crouse picked up the slack and wound up with 28 points, setting a D4 championship-game record that lasted for several years. Santa Ynez’s best player, Erin Alexander, got into foul trouble and sat the entire third quarter, and Ursuline staked a 49-38 lead.

But the Bears got conservative, and Santa Ynez made a late comeback to knot the game at 59-59. Rigby called time out with 24 seconds left. He faced his girls on the bench and asked Durand what she wanted to run.

Always thinking big-picture, Durand noted that Santa Ynez was running a triangle-and-two defense, assigning one defender each to Durand and Crouse and otherwise playing a triangle zone. Durand knew that she and Crouse would be double-teamed, so she suggested a play that would set a screen for a weakside teammate.

The ball came inbounds to Crouse. Under pressure, she stumbled but fired a pass inside to junior center Michaela Canova. Canova averaged about 3 points per game that year. She was 0 for 6 in the championship game up to that point. But with two seconds on the clock, she sealed a heart-stopping victory.

“I remember the ball hit below the rim,” Rigby said. “I was standing on the baseline, and I saw the shot go up and I go, ‘It’s not high enough.’ Somehow it just crawled over the rim.”

Final score: Ursuline 61, Santa Ynez 59.

Back in Santa Rosa, the Bears would get a hero’s welcome.

“They shut down school for half a day to celebrate, and Joy and I got our own parking spots,” Crouse said. “That was the best thing of all.”

Durand wound up playing basketball at St. Mary’s, then a final year for Rigby at Sonoma State. Crouse and guard Pam Karbowski played together at Cal State Northridge. Kellie Lennon played at Cal State Dominguez Hills. Mazeau played hoops and soccer at Dominican University.

Rigby believes Ursuline’s three-year run of dominance helped redefine sports at the school.

“There was a lot of pushback for me when I wanted to go out and play the Bishop O’Dowds of the world, and go to summer camps and so forth,” Rigby said. “I think administratively, they would have been much more comfortable if we’d just stayed .500. I think after what we did, then it became more accepted to be competitive.”

Ursuline had some strong basketball teams after 1992, including the 2002 edition that lost to Marin Catholic in the NorCal final. That Bears team was led by a girl whom Durand had been recruited to coach at St. Rose Catholic School — Monica Mertle, who now coaches the NorCal-champion Cardinal Newman girls.

That heritage didn’t prevent the Ursuline directors from deciding to close the school in 2007.

“The year it was announced, I came back home, and Joy and I walked the whole campus,” said Crouse, who has remained very close to Durand. “We stopped in the gym and saw girls practicing, and I was really upset. It did impact me. I do not view Newman as my school.”

Which is not to say Crouse isn’t rooting for Mertle’s team to hang a banner in the Cardinal Newman gym, perhaps next to the blue-and-white tapestry that honors the 1992 Ursuline Bears.

Those banners are exceedingly rare, throughout the Redwood Empire.

Five years after Ursuline beat Santa Ynez, the Rincon Valley Christian team led by Buescher won the Division 5 championship. No one around here has done it since. In fact, the Cloverdale boys of 1983 and 1984 are the only other Empire teams to be crowned CIF basketball champions.

That speaks to how difficult it is to win it all in a state like California. These opportunities simply don’t come along every year.

“There’s frankly no formula that will guarantee a state championship,” Durand said. “As we’ve seen with this year’s March Madness, anything can happen. There’s injuries, there’s bad nights, there’s the refs. So it’s pretty magical when it all comes together.”

The Cardinal Newman girls are hoping to grasp a piece of that magic on Saturday.

You can reach Staff Writer Phil Barber at 521-5263 or phil.barber@pressdemocrat.com. Follow him on Twitter: @Skinny_Post.

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