New coaching staff brings new life to St. Vincent athletics
Interscholastic sports are again in full, or almost full, bloom at St. Vincent de Paul High School.
The St. Vincent football team last weekend played in its second consecutive North Coast Section championship. But the sports Renaissance at the highly rated academic school goes much deeper than just the high profile success of the football program.
This school year, under the direction of new athletic director Heather Campbell, St. Vincent will offer varsity sports programs in both boys and girls basketball, tennis, football, volleyball, cross country, track and field, wrestling, boys and girls lacrosse, softball, golf and girls soccer, with boys soccer coming next year.
It is several big steps forward for a sports program that won just one of nine football games and had trouble filling teams for sports like tennis, soccer and track back when Pat Daly became principal in 2017.
The return of sports programs to the school hasn’t been easy, and it hasn’t been straightforward. But it has been steady, starting with Daly hiring former Casa Grande High School head coach Trent Herzog to lead the football program in 2018.
Even that hiring had a few twists. Former Piner head coach John Antonio was originally hired for the position, but after initially accepting, had second thoughts and stepped away. Ironically, Antonio eventually became Casa Grande head coach.
Herzog accepted and has taken the St. Vincent team to state prominence.
But that was only the start. Daly convinced former Cardinal Newman coach Ton Bonfigli, one of the winningest coaches in the state, to take over the basketball program, and this spring added former Petaluma High coach Jim Selvitella to run the baseball program.
“Whether it is teachers or coaches, you have to get the right people,” Daly said. “You have to have the right team together. You want to have everyone focused on the same goal. We want teachers and coaches that care about students and want to give them a good college prep education.”
Another big piece of the athletic picture was added with the hiring of Campbell to become full-time athletic director. The position is new for Campbell, but she is one of the most respected members of the Redwood Empire athletic community as trainer for the Casa Grande athletic teams and founder of the Casa Grande sports medicine program.
Daly went through several athletic directors before convincing Campbell to come out of a brief retirement to take on the job.
A major emphasis for Campbell has been increasing opportunities for girls to play competitive athletics. Through the years, St. Vincent has had some outstanding girls programs with multiple league and even section championships in volleyball, basketball soccer and softball.
“When Pat and I sat down, a big part of our discussion was about increasing girls sports opportunities,” Campbell said.
The new athletic director inherited a softball program that was already in good hands, with former St. Vincent player Morgan Selmi replacing NCS Coach of the Year Don Jensen after learning as his assistant.
But the once proud volleyball team was in free fall and need of help, so St. Vincent charged enthusiastic newcomer Katrina Sundberg with getting it back on the right track. “She is real go-getter. We are excited about what she brings to our program,” Campbell said. Sundberg made big strides with a very young team, winning four matches this fall.
Campbell is also very impressed with new girls basketball coach Will Bullard, who is tasked with rebuilding a program that was 7-12 and won just one North Bay League Redwood game last season. “He’s a phenomenal coach. The girls are excited about playing for him,” Campbell said.
Excitement is building for the new girls lacrosse program as well, coached by veteran Bob Merwin who built Casa Grande’s program to a dominant force in the Redwood Empire.
Campbell points out that St. Vincent has a “huge” cheer program and is looking forward to watching it compete in competition cheer events.
Also, Mark Ribeiro will be in charge of reviving a once championship girls soccer program.
With Herzog in football, Bonfigli in basketball and Selvitella in baseball, St. Vincent now has three of the Redwood Empire’s most respected coaches in charge of the three major boys programs.
Meanwhile, Ed Evans has made a good start at establishing a boys lacrosse program. His first team had a competitive 3-6 record. And Jimmy Pera will offer wrestling and Andy Frasier will coach the golf team.
The biggest gap left for Daly and Campbell to fill in the coaching ranks is for a boys soccer coach to restart that program.
Campbell even mentions the possibility of offering swimming if the logistics of using the city’s municipal pool or the Petaluma High pool can be worked out.
It is an ambitious undertaking for a school with an enrollment of around 230 and confined geographical space. However, enrollment is growing and the school makes maximum use of its gym space and synthetic-turfed playing surfaces.
“It is like playing a game of chess,” Campbell said. “I keep a calendar for the gym and one for the fields. It is a balancing act.”
St. Vincent also makes maximum use of community facilities, with lacrosse using the field at Lucchesi Park and other teams other community facilities. The new wrestling team uses mats at Kenilworth Junior High.
“We owe a great deal of thanks to the City of Petaluma. They have been great to work with,” said Campbell.
In addition to sharing facilities, St. Vincent teams are also asked to share players. “All of our coaches understand they will have to share athletes,” the athletic director said. “We think it is healthy for kids to play multiple sports,” she explained. “It is healthy for the kids to use different muscles and utilize different use patterns.”
Campbell said the emphasis is on a comprehensive sports program. “It has been a big learning curve for me,” Campbell said. “I think we are on the right track. You are going to see St. Vincent back on the sports map for something other than football. It all starts with Pat Daly and him hiring the right people.”
Daly acknowledged that plans have been slowed by COVID and the disruption caused by the pandemic, but things are beginning to turn around.
“Our attrition rate is way down. We are starting to rebound,” he said. “It looks like we are going to have a strong freshman class next year.”
Daly said the changes are not only in athletics, but throughout the school. “We want to increase our science classes and add a broader range of electives,” he explained.
"We have put in a lot of hard work and now we are starting the realize the fruits of our labors.”
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