Video: Cardinal Newman thrives on gridiron
Newman's football team, like their girls basketball team, didn't let the deadly Tubbs Fire define them.
SANTA ROSA, Calif. — Cardinal Newman (Santa Rosa)
senior Maiya Flores
didn't seek empathy. She didn't want shoes or a cooked meal or even an embrace.
She just needed a basketball and her teammates. Likewise they needed her and the game they all adore.
"They never brought it up," Flores said. "They were just there. We just focused on the game, the team and getting better."
Flores was one of about 100 Newman students who lost their home last fall in the most destructive wildfire in California history, a horrific and violent natural disaster that claimed 25 lives, destroyed more than 5,550 structures and caused an estimated $1.2 billion damage.
She was the only one among the 14-person squad to lose their home, but clearly all the Cardinals, all the 600 students at the tightly-knit coed Catholic school nestled in the beautiful rolling hills of Sonoma County's wine country, lost something.
Namely, their school.
Half of the campus was leveled to ash, as were almost all adjacent neighborhoods, leaving behind stark, baron, war-like reminders of rubble not to mention the unmistakable stench of smoke and debris.
Rather than focus on the wreckage left behind, administrators and leaders like Newman basketball coach and teacher Monica Mertle centered on rebuilding, getting stronger and better.
It was much how she had built one of California's top programs — from the ground up.
"The most important thing for the school, for our team, was to get back to a place of normalcy, to look toward the future and to let them know we're going to come back better," she said.
Six months after the fire, students are all back on campus, construction is rebuilding half the campus and Mertle's Cardinals (27-5) are as good or better than ever.
On Sunday they were selected as one of the top 16 teams in the state and Friday they travel to Stockton to face
, the nation's fifth-ranked team according to MaxPreps, in a first-round CIF Northern California Open Division game.
If the seventh-seeded Cardinals get past St. Mary's, then they'll get the nation's No. 4 team Pinewood (Los Altos Hills)
, according to the MaxPreps computer rankings, and waiting on the other side of the bracket is national consensus No. 1 Archbishop Mitty (San Jose)
Asked about the daunting task of competing in arguably the nation's toughest girls basketball bracket, Mertle smiled knowingly.
"We enjoy being the underdog," she said. "We're looking forward to competing on the big-girl basketball stage. But believe me, with everything that has happened this year, not a lot is going to scare us."
Certainly not with Mertle in charge. Going big, going small
The 33-year-old starred at Newman's sister school Ursuline before playing at St. Mary's College. She earned her first Master's degree in Exercise Science and is working on a second in Sports Psychology.
When Ursuline meshed into Newman to become a coed school in 2011, she took over the girls basketball program from scratch. Her goals were big and lofty. Her attitude, fearless.
The North Bay region of the San Francisco Bay Area was not nearly a basketball hotbed, and was associated with softer, finer things like wine, cheese, weekend getaways and mud baths.
A native of the region, Mertle was determined to change the soft stereotypes and build something sturdy, strong and long-lasting.
"I knew we could win and win big," she said. "I wanted the girls to believe they could not only beat the teams they should around here, but also beat teams outside of Sonoma county and nationwide."
The Cardinals bought into that attitude and rewarded with Mertle's promise.
They've gone 167-53 during her seven-year run, winning a state Division 4 crown in 2015-16 and last year (30-4) reaching the Open Division NorCal finals after upsetting higher seeds Carondelet (Concord) and Pinewood on the road.
They've averaged better than 27 wins the last five seasons and beaten all the state's top programs — the national elite, including St. Mary's on the road.
But Mertle makes no bones about it.
"Regardless of how things turn out Friday and beyond, this is the greatest year the program has ever had," she said. "Frankly, it's unbelievable how far we've come."
It was already going to be the season of change for the Cardinals, who lost two college-bound bigs, 6-5 Lauren Walker (Portland) and 6-3 Hailey Vice-Neat (Boise State) to graduation.
The transition to go small — their tallest player this season is 5-10 Arie Searcy
— was already going to be challenging. All of that seemed miniscule when the fire ravaged Northern California.
The Cardinals were in the middle of fall conditioning when the fire struck. The school was closed for two weeks before students and players were split into four satellite campuses, based on years in school.
With four seniors, two juniors, five sophomores and three freshman, the tightly-knit group was dispersed throughout the day.
Finding their joy
When they finally did practice starting in November — at noontime at Santa Rosa Junior College — Mertle gave them 10 minutes to simply reconnect socially.
"They needed that," she said. "They needed each other during a really tough time. They needed normalcy."
Basketball gave them more than that. "Basketball was their refuge," Mertle said. "It was their place of happiness, a place to find their joy. They were able to get away from the sadness, the anger, the frustration of not being on campus."
For Flores, a four-year first-team All-League player who Saturday became the school's career scoring leader (either gender), it was a chance to escape all the uncertainty in her life.
She's so appreciated the outpouring of compassion and well-wishers. But it all could also be overwhelming.
"I needed time not to think about any of it," she said. "So many wonderful people texted me, but in a way it made me more stressed. I didn't know what my family or I was going to do next. Nothing like this obviously had ever happened before.
"Being with my teammates and playing basketball got me through. They didn't need to say anything. I knew they were there for me."
Mertle was always there for Flores.
"I've been playing for Monica since the fifth grade," Flores said. "She's always been way more than a coach. She's always had my best interest at heart. For all the girls. She didn't ask questions (after the fire), she just went out and got socks and spandex and shoes. She's helped me so much not only as a coach, but as a mentor." Through the burn
After two hours of practice in the middle of the day, the team spent two hours at the SRJC library in study hall. Mertle tried to fit in team meetings and film sessions, but it wasn't easy. They made it work until Jan. 22, when they returned to campus and could begin playing home games again.
The Cardinals played their first 20 games on the road and were 16-4. They've gone 11-1 since.
, a 5-8 guard, is the team's leading scorer at just over 15 points per game. Flores, a 5-6 sharpshooter, is at 14 points per game. She's also the school career 3-pointer maker. Another guard, 5-6 junior Avery Cargill
, averages 11 points per game.
Not many are giving Newman much of a shot against St. Mary's, which features McDonald's All-American Aquira Decosta
. Most, in fact, thought after a tough 50-46 loss to Salesian (Richmond) in Saturday's North Coast Section finals, the Cardinals would be selected into the lower Division 1 tournament, giving them a greater chance of winning a state title.
"Honestly, in Division 1, I'm sure we could have gone far into NorCals," Flores said. "But why can't we do the same in the Open Division too? There's nothing we can't accomplish or overcome. I truly believe that."
No matter how the season ends, Flores said, it will remain inside her forever. She and the team were wear warm-up shirts with the inscription: "Play through the burn."
The motto was coined by someone at school and many Newman teams wear warm-ups with that inscription. It embraces the notion, Mertle said, that players acknowledge the occurrence of the disaster, and outsiders' sympathy, but they would not give into it.
"Be gracious and appreciate it," Mertle said. "But we weren't going to be a walking pity party. We're going to get through this. We're going to be OK."
Better than OK, Flores said. Simply better.
"It sounds weird, but this has been my favorite season," she said. "We've all become so close. In one way or another we've all been so impacted by the fires. It made our school so much closer. It's awful that it happened, but in a way, we're definitely more grateful to just be here together."