Benefield: Cardinal Newman girls expect to dominate on basketball court

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They appear different on the basketball court. Cardinal Newman senior Avery Cargill is almost expressionless, running the point like it’s her job. Cargill’s backcourt partner has a different look. Junior Anya Choice looks like she could break out into laughter at any moment.

But together, this duo, dynamic as all get-out, is looking to lead their team to another CIF state championship title run.

Cargill runs the half-court offense like a boss. She is the boss. She has been Cardinal Newman’s starting point guard since the first game of her freshman year.

“Avery has been like a coach on the floor since she was a freshman,” Cardinal Newman coach Monica Mertle said. “She could lead a practice.”

In the three-plus seasons that Cargill has run the point, the Cardinals have gone on a phenomenal run. The Cardinals won the CIF Division 4 state championship in 2016 when she was a freshman. They won the North Coast Section Division 4 title in 2017 before being ousted one game short of the CIF Open Division title game.

Last season they were runners-up in the NCS Division 3 tournament and fell in the first round of the state Open Division to St. Mary’s of Stockton.

Their 75-26 win over Santa Rosa Friday night gave the Cardinals their 100th win since Cargill joined the team, for a 100-19 record. They move to 12-4 overall and 3-0 in the North Bay League-Oak Division. The Cardinals have not lost a league game since Jan. 24, 2014. “She just has tremendous experience,” Mertle said. “She really is that veteran leader.”

But where Cargill is the calm, collected surgeon, her backcourt partner is the sparkle.

“She is an emotional leader,” Mertle said of Choice. “She gets excited. Her enthusiasm is contagious.”

And her play is an embodiment of that enthusiasm.

“She is really quick, a lot quicker than I am, so she uses that to her advantage,” Cargill said of her teammate. “She attacks really well, finishes really well.”

She also gets it done. Choice scored her 1,000th point on Dec. 22 in the Cardinals’ 44-40 loss to Heritage High. She reached that mark faster than any player in program history.

“She’s a great slasher,” Mertle said. “But we have had a lot of discussions about the importance of being multidimensional, so over the last couple of years, she has really worked hard to develop her perimeter shot.”

And the thing these two have in common?

“I think they are the same in that they both want to win. That unites them,” Mertle said.

On a team that looks like it plays five guards at one time, Cargill and Choice are the playmakers. They are the pair that make the Cardinals go.

Choice is averaging nearly 22 points and seven rebounds per game. She is also adding four assists per contest.

Cargill is putting up an average of 17 points, six assists and 2.5 steals.

Rounding out the starting five, junior Emma Nordby averages three points and five rebounds per game, sophomore Aysia Dural averages five points and five rebounds per game and junior Christina Bacci averages eight points per game.

There is another stat worth noting: The tallest member of the starting five — the tallest player on the team, in fact — stands at 5 feet, 9 inches.

“Last year we were small, but this year we are smaller,” Cargill said. “But the tempo is a lot quicker. Everyone is really athletic on this team. We are really trying to get things in transition, maybe trying to press, put pressure on the ball more. Everything is faster, and we want to use our athleticism to our best advantage.”

“This year we don’t have too much height,” Choice said. “But our speed and athleticism and pressure is what we are hoping to bring more of this year. So when you play Cardinal Newman, just know that there is going to be a lot of pressure on you.”

Both Cargill and Choice credited the play of Nordby, at 5-foot-8, for making life hard for the post players on much taller teams.

“I don’t know how she does it ,but she always has to guard the bigs and she finds a way to do it and get the job done — box out and get those rebounds and limit them,” Cargill said.

“Emma Nordby just does a great job,” Choice said. “We have a lot of trust in her.”

Mertle agreed.

“Emma is the type of player you have to have on your team in order to be successful,” she said. “She gets rebounds, she gets loose balls, she boxes out, she scraps, she fights.”

In the end, that is what Mertle asks of all of her players.

“The girls are going to play hard and they are going to play hard every night,” Mertle said. “At the high school level, you don’t have to be tall to be successful.”

And no program has been more successful in recent years than the Cardinals. It is not a run Cargill or Choice are willing to see end.


“State championship. Always,” Choice said.

But the postseason has grown trickier in a short time.

Since Cargill was a freshman, the Cardinals have been moved from Division 4 to Division 3 and they have played in the Open Division twice. Last year, for the second year in a row, they were awarded a vaunted Open Division spot, playing the best of the best. But they got a No. 7 seed, which pitted them against No. 2 St. Mary’s — which beat them 66-37, ending their season.

The year before, returning from their Division 4 CIF state championship, the Cardinals were given the No. 7 seed in the Open Division.

That year they put together a string of upsets — over No. 2 Carondelet and No. 3 Pinewood — before eventually falling 78-54 to No. 1 seed Archbishop Mitty, one game shy of the CIF title game.

There is no telling, when the time comes, where the seeding committee may or may not place the Cardinals. That makes it hard to scout and makes it hard to articulate goals. So Mertle said her focus is to keep it simple.

The team is young — Cargill is the only senior — so the goal is to improve. The goal is to learn. And, of course, the goal is to win. The rest will be largely up to factors outside of the Cardinals’ power.

“This year our approach is to win every game we play,” Mertle said. “To sit here and say ‘We want to be here’ or ‘We want to be there,’ there are too many variables at play within competitive equity. So we want to win every game we play.”

That leaves seeding and tournament division placement up to others. The Cardinals will focus on what is before them.

That said, they will not shy away from saying they’d like to go against the best. The bigger, the better.

“That’s the stage they want to be on,” Mertle said.

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