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Benefield: Cardinal Newman-Montgomery boys basketball rivalry born 50 years ago

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IF YOU GO

Who: Cardinal Newman at Montgomery

What: North Bay League boys basketball

When: 7:30 p.m. Wednesday

Where: Montgomery High School

We should have known this would be an enduring — and indelible — rivalry, what with the way the first game went down.

In the very first installment of what has grown into an epic boys basketball rivalry in these parts, the Cardinal Newman Cardinals and Montgomery Vikings took their first-ever meeting on Jan. 3, 1970, to three overtime periods before a standing-room-only crowd, laying the groundwork for what has become one of the better annual hoops rivalries.

“It was an amazing game,” said Tom Bonfigli, the Cardinals’ starting point guard as a junior that season.

And the names will likely sound familiar in prep hoops circles. Bonfigli has coached the Cardinals for decades and last month won his 800th game, making him the ninth-winningest (and counting) boys basketball coach in state history, according to Cal-Hi Sports. He will stalk the sideline of Montgomery’s gym yet again Wednesday night.

Then-Vikings star guard Steve Bell coached the Vikings’ girls varsity squad for 26 years before retiring in 2015. His Vikings won 523 games, went to the North Coast Section playoffs more than 23 times and the NorCal tournament four times.

When Montgomery hosts Cardinal Newman at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday night, it will mark 50 years and 19 days since the first time these two hoops juggernauts faced off.

The Cardinals of today will bring a 17-3 overall record and 3-1 North Bay League-Oak mark into the game. The Vikings have struggled some this season and are 9-9 overall and 1-2 in league.

But the game will likely be good. It always seems to be. And it will likely be packed at Montgomery, because that, too, seems to go with this game.

But nothing will likely rival that first game five decades ago. It was a doozy.

Montgomery hosted, and like they did with all the big games in those days, made adjustments to their gym to accommodate larger crowds. The stage on the east end of the gym was fitted with bleachers. Folding chairs lined the end line and corners. There were crowds standing in the doorway, craning for a peek at the action. People were turned away.

All of that humanity packed into the gym made the temperatures rise before the game had even begun.

“It was hotter than hell in there,” Bonfigli remembered. “There were people everywhere. The fire marshal was there.”

But from the sound of it, the fire marshal was likely there to watch the game, not monitor gym capacity.

“I can remember taking the ball out by the Montgomery section and people grabbing my socks,” he said.

At that time, Santa Rosa was a relatively small town, with a population listed at 50,000. High school basketball was a big ticket. And Cardinal Newman was new on the scene, but the Cardinals were making noise early.

“Montgomery and Santa Rosa, that was an unbelievable basketball rivalry,” said Bonfigli, who was a junior in the 1969-70 season. “You had to get tickets during the week or you couldn’t get in. It was like a Super Bowl ticket.”

That first contest had a lot of pregame hype, despite there being zero precedent for these two teams meeting. And the heat wasn’t just figurative.

“We turned the heat way up in the gym so it was incredibly hot,” Vikings star guard Greg Webb said.

IF YOU GO

Who: Cardinal Newman at Montgomery

What: North Bay League boys basketball

When: 7:30 p.m. Wednesday

Where: Montgomery High School

In Webb’s telling, the Vikings practiced in those conditions, so they were used to it. And their style of run and gun — coupled with relentless defense — made them a team that regularly went deep into the postseason and was largely considered the preeminent program around.

“It was a pretty dominant program,” said Russ Peterich, who took over head coaching duties for the Vikings in 1967.

But word on the street was that newcomer Cardinal Newman, which had just opened in 1964, had a team to be reckoned with. So good, some said the Vikings were scared.

“Montgomery refused to play Cardinal Newman,” Bonfigli insisted.

The two teams were in different leagues in those days, so any game would have to be scheduled for the preseason.

Peterich said the Vikings weren’t ducking anyone, it was just that they had a schedule that had included the same teams for years — so it was difficult to squeeze a new contest in.

And according to Montgomery’s Webb, the Vikings had appreciation for the Newman boys but zero fear.

“They had Charlie Lumpkins, he was a big guy,” he said. “Talk on the street was ‘These guys are tough.’ People would come up to me and say, ‘These guys can beat you.’”

Webb was having none of it.

“Montgomery was the team to beat. Everybody was trying to beat Montgomery. It had been that way at least six or seven years,” he said.

In fact, Webb is quick to point out, Montgomery’s dominance was borne of a dominant seventh, eighth and ninth grade program that was running roughshod over opponents down the road at Slater Junior High.

So when tipoff finally came the night of Jan. 3, the prep basketball world was ready for these two squads to meet.

Poor Press Democrat sportswriter Herb Dower had the unenviable job of writing up the game story on the tightest of Saturday night deadlines, and still he made it sing: “You can use all the superlatives on this one — last night’s first meeting between the Montgomery and Cardinal Newman High School basketball teams.

“In a game that had all the drama of a championship encounter, the Vikings were forced into triple overtime before emerging with a 55-49 victory before an SRO crown in the Montgomery gymnasium.”

By Dower’s account, “The varsity game was so filled with emotion from start to finish that just about everyone in the audience was left limp by the time the Vikings broke from a 48-48 tie after two overtimes to salt the game away in the third.”

Or maybe it was the heat in that darned gym that made everyone go limp.

The Cardinals’ Lumpkins and Phil Magrini pulled the game into a tie and sent it to overtime after Lumpkins sank two free throws to knot the score at 43.

The Vikings’ Bell, who was an early hero with a steal and 45-footer to end the third quarter, gave the Vikings the upper hand after the first overtime ended in yet another tie. Bell hit two free throws and a jumper, only to see the Cardinals tie it yet again on a Magrini jump hook.

Bell had a chance to win it after he was fouled as the buzzer sounded to close the second OT, but missed the front end of a one-and-one.

It seems now almost like a gesture of generosity to miss, as if he wanted to give the standing-room-only crowd what they wanted — for this battle to rage on.

“I rimmed it,” Bell said of that free throw. “It felt good on the release, I thought. It caught the edge and rimmed out.”

Webb, who has a nearly six-decade friendship with Bell, said the star guard immediately redeemed himself.

“He was a great athlete and good free-throw shooter,” he said. “Almost immediately afterward, he stole the ball and scored, so I couldn’t nag him too much.”

Dower agreed.

“Then came the third overtime and the heroics by (reserve Jim) Stimack, Bell and Webb,” he wrote.

That was the end of the story. Poor Herb Dower had probably run out of gas, and time, too.

But clearly it wasn’t the end of the story. People talked about it. They still do. And a terrific rivalry was born.

“I think we put on a good show,” Bell said.

That game spawned all that has followed and was the cornerstone to one of the better rivalries we have in these parts.

“You don’t know at that point, but certainly reflecting back, it probably is one of those games that sort of set the tone or set the stage,” Bell said. “(The rivalry) certainly has been one that has gone back and forth and generates a lot of excitement.”

And generating excitement for high school athletics is good. Even as the town has grown into a city and the league has new names like Maria Carrillo and Elsie Allen and Windsor, some of the old rivalries still have some magic to them.

“It was good for not only the high schools but it was good for the town, too,” Peterich said. “It was good and it has been good ever since.”

You can reach staff columnist Kerry Benefield at 707-526-8671 or kerry.benefield@pressdemocrat.com, on Twitter @benefield and on Instagram at kerry.benefield. Podcasting on iTunes and SoundCloud, “Overtime with Kerry Benefield.”

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