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By the numbers, the Cardinal Newman girls soccer team should not be playing Saturday.

Their season should be over, with athletes going back to their club teams, or running track or doing any other after-school activity. Instead, the Cardinals, seeded No. 6 in the inaugural year of the Division III NorCal regional tournament, will be on a bus Saturday traveling east to play the No. 4 seed Bradshaw Christian of Sacramento, winners of the Sierra Delta League as well as the Sac-Joaquin Delta Division 6 title, at 6 p.m.

Despite being in the role of underdog, coach John Gilson sounds confident. The Cardinals have been playing their best soccer all season in recent weeks, he said.

“The kids have it right now, they can feel it,” he said.

There are so many facets to this tale.

Let’s start with the fires in October. The deadly Tubbs fire razed the homes of about 90 of Cardinal Newman’s 620 students, including six members of the varsity soccer team. The fire also destroyed half of the school campus, including the soccer/baseball field, and displaced students to satellite campuses for months.

The field is being replaced, but not in time for this soccer season. So every game and every practice for the past four months — barring a few sessions on the natural grass on the south end of campus — has been on the road.

“We have just found places, little plots of grass to play,” Gilson said. “The kids have kind of fed on that. You have to deal with that and learn from that.”

And they have learned to give thanks for friends.

“Chris Ziemer at Sonoma Academy was very gracious,” Gilson said. The Cardinal Newman team had regular access to Sonoma Academy’s all-weather surface for practice.

The season hasn’t been all roses. It’s not that kind of Cinderella story.

After all, they play in a league with Montgomery and Maria Carrillo, the two giants of the North Bay League for a nearly a decade. But other than getting dropped by Montgomery 5-1 and 3-0, the Cardinals have played everyone close.

And it was actually a late-season loss that buoyed Gilson about how his team was playing and how they may fare in the postseason.

The Cardinals dropped their final NBL game 1-0 to Carrillo, the eventual North Coast Section champion. But the box score didn’t tell the whole story for Gilson.

“Obviously, coming out of that, feeling like we can play with Carrillo, not that we are better than them, but that we can play with them,” he said.

The Cardinals ended their regular season with an 11-9 record.

That tally got them a No. 4 seed in Division 4 of the North Coast Section tournament, where they fell in the semifinal round to No. 1-seeded Branson, the eventual Division 4 champions.

It was there, in the immediate aftermath of a potential season-ending loss, that Gilson asked his team if they wanted him to apply for an at-large berth in the first-ever NorCal playoff tournament.

“We had lost to Branson, it was a great effort. We left everything on the field and that is what we wanted,” he said. “So I gave them a couple of minutes to kind of settle in, getting their stuff off. I said, ‘There are some at-large positions in the NorCals that we can apply for. Do you want me to apply? Do you guys want it?’ Everybody said, ‘Yes, yes, yes.’”

No vote was necessary. It was about a day later that Gilson learned that Piedmont, with its automatic entry earned by making it to the final, decided not to play on. Newman was in.

The Cardinals were moved up to the Division III bracket and given the No. 6 seed. With it, they promptly beat No. 3 Center High of Antelope 3-1 on Tuesday, earning a matchup with No. 2 Sacred Heart Cathedral Prep of San Francisco Thursday.

But the idea of the Cardinals being underdogs doesn’t sit right with Gilson.

“Seeding had nothing to do with this,” he said, adding that much of the ranking system in this first-time-ever event seems almost arbitrary.

He told his kids, “you have to throw the seeding out. Nobody has played anybody else.”

So there was no point walking into Kezar Stadium Thursday night feeling like David when No. 2 seed Sacred Heart might not have been a true Goliath.

“We are just going to play a soccer game, guys,” he told his team. “Make them play us.”

The Cardinals won 1-0.

So up next is fourth-seeded Bradshaw Christian of Sacramento. Gilson said he’ll worry more about what the Cardinals do rather than plan too hard for what the Pride may bring. After all, things seem to be working just fine for the Cardinals right now.

“Sometimes you can give too much information to a kid about what the other team does and all of a sudden you aren’t playing anymore,” he said. “Let’s keep it simple and do what we do.”

And what they do, of late, is upset higher seeds. If they do it again Saturday, Cardinal Newman will take yet another bus ride, but this time as the NorCal Division III champion.

You can reach Press Democrat sports columnist Kerry Benefield at 707-526-8671 or kerry.benefield@pressdemocrat.com, on Twitter @benefield and on Instagram at kerry.benefield.

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