On most high school girls basketball teams, 6-foot-3 Hailey Vice-Neat would be the center, easy decision.
But on Cardinal Newman this season, there were two skyscrapers, and Vice-Neat was the shorter of the two.
It was an embarrassment of riches for coach Monica Mertle, who also had Lauren Walker, an inch taller than Vice-Neat, to rise above opponents under the basket.
“She’s the hardest matchup for the teams who play against us,” Mertle said of Vice-Neat. “If you put a guard on her, she has a post game, and if you put a post player on her, she can step out and face the basket.”
Vice-Neat’s versatility to fill dual roles on the court, to force defenses into mismatches, helped lead the Cardinals to the CIF Division 4 state championship in March in Sacramento — bringing the first basketball state title to Sonoma County since 1997.
For her performance this season, Vice-Neat is The Press Democrat’s 2015-16 large school girls basketball player of the year.
A 17-year-old junior, Vice-Neat averaged 16.5 points, 10.5 rebounds and 3 blocks in 36 games, helping the Cardinals compile a 31-5 record, including a 14-0 North Bay League run.
Vice-Neat was also selected to MaxPreps’ Division 4 and Cal-Hi Sports’ Small-School All-State first teams. (Cal-Hi also named Walker to the second team and guard Avery Cargill to the first-team Freshman All-State.)
The lanky, long-haired Vice-Neat has Mertle to thank, at least partially, for the guard-like ball-handling skills that have made her so valuable.
She wasn’t really interested in basketball at first, but her 6-foot-tall mom, Christina Neat, a Cloverdale High School player back in the day, convinced her daughter to at least give it a try. It fit. On her first few teams in sixth and seventh grade, Vice-Neat played the obvious under-the-basket role.
“I started off being a true post player because I was like 6 feet tall when I was in seventh grade,” she said.
In that second year, she began playing travel basketball, and with Mertle as her coach, Vice-Neat became more of a ball handler as well.
“You definitely have to put in time outside of practice. So I’d get my ball and go out on the street,” she said. “I would do two-hand stationary ball-handling by myself. It’s work, but you have to think this is going to get me better.”
Hard work is something Vice-Neat has never been afraid of. When she began playing in AAU games against older and stronger girls, she got bumped around. Her mother gave her sound advice.
“‘You’re a 14-year-old girl playing against 18-year-olds. If you’re playing at that level, you have to get used to it and toughen up a little bit,’” she recalled her mother saying. “My mom said, ‘If you want to do it, you’re going to have to get used to it.’”
Mertle said she’s seen Vice-Neat blossom as a player and as a young woman.
“If you saw her two years ago, you’d be amazed how much she’s improved and grown in every aspect of the game,” she said. “She has a great work ethic. She’s a very hard worker. She has embraced the idea of playing multiple positions. She has really matured since her freshman year.”