For Cardinal Newman girls basketball coach Monica Mertle, commitment brings success

Monica Mertle, the only girls basketball coach in Cardinal Newman High School’s history, has spent a decade building the Cardinals into the premier hoops program in the North Bay.

But despite all the wins, league titles and playoff runs, it is the lasting influence that Mertle has with her players that is at the core of her program.

“I want my players to know the value of hard work, the understanding of commitment and teamwork. It’s not flashy or exciting, but these are some of the most important aspects of life,” Mertle said. “Winning takes care of itself. We have high standards and we put in the work. We are more process-oriented than outcome-oriented.”

Mertle, 35, grew up in Windsor and played four years of varsity basketball at Ursuline High School, graduating in 2003 as a highly recruited 6-foot forward. She earned a full athletic scholarship to play at St. Mary’s in Moraga. She was also offered scholarships to play for Gonzaga, USF, UCLA and Hawaii ,but said she choose the Gaels because it was in the West Coast Conference, close to home, and she wouldn’t have to sit on the bench early in her college career.

“I wanted to go somewhere where I could play right away,” Mertle said. “You don’t want to go somewhere and work so hard and not play.”

Mertle was a starter her freshman year but suffered a serious ligament injury in her right knee that caused her to miss most of her sophomore year. She rehabbed but did not have surgery during her college career (she had the surgery at 29) and effectively played with the injury her junior year and most of her senior year. Mertle also developed back problems, which limited her ability to play toward the end of her senior year.

She tried to play in her last year of eligibility as a graduate student at UC Davis but suffered another knee injury, ending her playing career.

“It was devastating. We don’t talk enough about athletes’ injuries, transitioning out of a sport or retiring. It’s a complete loss of identity for an athlete. Athletes are used to competing and to not have that is traumatic,” Mertle said. “I didn’t watch basketball for an entire year (after the injury); I didn’t want anything to do with the sport.”

Mertle earned a degree in kinesiology from St. Mary’s in 2007 and a master’s in exercise science from UC Davis in 2010. Mertle began her coaching career with an Amateur Athletic Union basketball club, followed by training several local players when she moved back to Windsor after completing graduate school.

“When I was young I wanted to coach, but by the time I was done (playing) with the sport I didn’t want to,” Mertle said.

She got her big coaching break as the varsity coach at Windsor for the 2010-11 season while she was teaching at Ursuline, which closed in 2011. When Cardinal Newman accepted girls the next year, Mertle was hired to run the basketball program for its inaugural season.

“I wanted to build a program from scratch; that would be special,” Mertle said.

Mission accomplished for Mertle’s program, which has had no equal in Sonoma County since her third year of the program. Since the 2013-14 season, Cardinal Newman has won seven consecutive North Bay League regular-season titles and seven NBL postseason tournament championships.

The Cardinals have been to seven North Coast Section playoff tournaments (winning Division 4 in 2017 and finishing as the 37th-ranked team in the nation) and seven CIF NorCal state tournaments (winning Division IV in 2016).

Under Mertle, Cardinal Newman is 220-64 (she was 12-13 in her one year at Windsor).

“Just because we are from the North Bay doesn’t mean we can’t beat bigger schools,” Mertle said. “We can win and win big.”

In her 10-year stint at Cardinal Newman, her accolades include winning’s coach of the year five times; the San Francisco Chronicle’s coach of the year twice; NorCalPreps’ coach of the year in 2018; and MaxPreps’ state coach of the year in 2016.

Cardinal Newman usually doesn’t run into stiff competition until it plays outside its home county, which is a different scenario than many other top teams from the Bay Area and Sacramento face.

“We have found ways to continue to challenge ourselves in league play. On day one of the program our first goal was to be the best team in Sonoma County. Our local success is really important and we can never take it for granted,” Mertle said. “Now we want to be the best team in our NCS division (currently the “Open” division) and state section.”

Mertle has been courted to coach at bigger schools but said she has stayed at Cardinal Newman because of her ties to the school and local community and her relationship with her players.

Mertle’s family has been heavily involved in her playing and coaching career. Her brother, Garrett, helped train her in high school. Her dad, Tom (a three-sport star who is in the Piner Athletic Hall of Fame), and sister, Heidi Watts, have been her assistant coaches since she took over the Cardinals’ program.

“My dad loves it. I am so lucky to have him. He brings a great parent perspective,” Mertle said. “My sister is my best friend. I got to play with her at Ursuline (2001-03) and that was a blast. My mom (Andrea) comes to all the games. Her biggest influence has been being a great role model of a strong woman. She taught us to stand up for ourselves and be confident at a young age.”

Mertle guided her team through the four-month Cardinal Newman campus shutdown after the Tubbs fire in 2017, when the Cardinals practiced and played at SRJC.

“It strengthened our program and put things in perspective,” Mertle said. “It showed the healing effects of sport during difficult times. The benefits of sports are much greater than wins and scholarships.”

This season, like all other high school coaches, Mertle is having to navigate her program through coronavirus-related disruptions.

“One thing that has been interesting about the pandemic, with respect to sport, is that it has really shown who has been willing to work on their own and who hasn’t,” Mertle said. “It has tested a lot of players and their love of their sport. I’m very happy with how many players have worked really hard to stay in shape. I’ve seen the girls improve and get stronger.”

Mertle teaches exercise science, sports psychology, sociology of sport and physical education at Cardinal Newman. She is starting a new program in “human performance,” which explores the entire well-being of an athlete and not just the physical aspects.

With most of her career ahead of her, Mertle said she plans on continuing to coach for the long haul ― with onr caveat.

“I will coach as long as I have players that love the game and work hard and that I can connect with,” Mertle said. “First and foremost, I want my players to know that I care about them as people. I hope they become confident and empowered young women.”

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