Along a eucalyptus-lined avenue, where mansions nestle behind ivy-covered brick walls, Corvette convertibles and BMWs slip through the iron gates of Sacred Heart Preparatory. For nearly 100 years, the privileged have been educated in the serenity of this wooded, 64-acre campus that lies in the shadow of Stanford University.
Recently, however, the tranquillity has been disrupted by the success of the school’s girls’ basketball team.
The Gators’ remarkable success has invited scrutiny of their explosive coach and a pressurized environment created by media and parental expectations.
After winning the State Division V championship in 1993, Sacred Heart jumped to Division I last season and became the smallest school ever to win the elite-division championship.
And Sacred Heart had an 80-game winning streak before it lost this season to Brea Olinda. The streak was four games shy of the state record, set by the Cheryl Miller-led Riverside Poly team in 1980-82.
In the four years since the arrival of Coach Mike Ciardella, the Gators’ record is 138-5, including 64-0 in the Girls’ Private School League. This season, they have a 37-1 record and will play Mater Dei (28-1) at the Oakland Coliseum Arena at 6 p.m. Saturday in the State Division I final.
That Sacred Heart even competes in Division I is remarkable, considering its enrollment of 288. Lynwood, which lost to Sacred Heart in last year’s title game, has an enrollment of 3,400.
How did such a tiny school develop one of the best girls’ basketball program in the state?
The foundation was set in the 1991-92 season with the arrival of Ciardella, who had quit as coach of Burlingame Mercy after three seasons.
The next season, seniors Liz Rizzo and Wendy Miller combined with junior Alexis Felts to lead the Gators to the Division V State championship. All three players have since gone on to NCAA Division I programs--Rizzo to California, Miller to Loyola Marymount and Felts to Colorado.
Last year, with Felts returning, the Gators were favored to repeat as Division V champions. But before the season, Jenny Circle, a 6-foot-3 center who is one of the state’s best players, decided to leave Los Altos High because its girls’ basketball team was struggling. Circle visited the Sacred Heart campus and was sent on a tour with Felts, who proved an effective recruiter.
Circle chose to attend Sacred Heart and it took Ciardella only a few minutes to decide to move Sacred Heart to Division I.
Circle combined with Felts, Kobie Kennon, who is headed to Cal next season, and guard Renee Robinson to lead Sacred Heart to the championship.
The Gators have lost only one game this season, and one reason for their success is Robinson, a flashy junior point guard who, Ciardella said, could be the program’s best player yet.
Robinson started on the Millbrae Taylor Middle School boys’ team as an eighth-grader. Ciardella heard about her in 1992, when a physical education teacher at Taylor called to say Robinson was interested in attending Sacred Heart.
Robinson and Ciardella have developed a relationship that goes beyond coach and player. Unlike many Sacred Heart students, Robinson rides a bus to school from her father’s home in East Palo Alto. When Robinson had difficulty adjusting to school in her freshman year, Ciardella was there to encourage her. Robinson often visits the coach at his home, where his wife helps her type her school papers.
“I love that guy,” Robinson said. “He’s like a father.”
She said she has a special, corporate sponsorship that financially allows her to go to Sacred Heart. That would have been against CIF rules if the school had secured the donation for Robinson for athletic purposes. But a recent CIF investigation of the situation turned up no violation.
Ciardella has drawn similar scrutiny for his volatile coaching style.
In the second quarter of a recent game, Ciardella knelt, almost pleading with his players, then jumped up and stomped down the sideline, arms flailing.
At that point, the Gators were leading, 39-8.
“What I like more than anything else about him,” said Dee Circle, Jenny Circle’s father, “he never coaches the score.”
Players support Ciardella’s methods.
“People say, ‘He’s so loud, how do you handle the yelling?’ ” said Dawn Desautels, a junior guard. “But in the past, when he hasn’t yelled, we’ve played down.”
Ciardella has been accused of carrying his passion for the game too far, however.
After Sacred Heart defeated Monta Vista in last season’s Northern California regional final, Ciardella got into a yelling match with Monta Vista’s twin stars, Kim and Kristin Clark.
Monta Vista Coach Virgil Pate ripped Ciardella, calling him “classless” and “embarrassing.”
The next day, Sacred Heart Principal Richard Dioli awoke to newspaper headlines about Ciardella’s explosion.
“That was the hardest day,” said Dioli, who had left the game early the previous evening to attend a school play. “It made me do a lot of soul-searching about the type of person Mike is.”
Ciardella called the twins to apologize and Dioli decided Ciardella could stay, saying, “None of us are perfect.”
Ciardella, 47, refuses to change.
“If you are a teacher and the period is 50 minutes, do you teach for 40?” he said.
Ciardella also said he was criticized unfairly because many think his style is too aggressive for girls.
“If I was this aggressive with the boys’ team, I don’t think anybody would say a word,” Ciardella said. “I’m coaching basketball players. They are not girls, they are basketball players. They want to be treated as athletes.”
But perhaps more important, the players said, they are treated as friends.
Sometimes, the Sacred Heart players need a shoulder for support. The pressure of playing for such a high-profile program can come from all sides.
Some parents are banking on their daughters earning college scholarships.
“We felt like paying the (tuition) money now, we won’t have to pay it later,” said Doc Sheppler, the father of Kacey Sheppler, a freshman.
Some players feel other kinds of family pressure.
Trisha Felts, a sophomore forward, is the younger sister of former star Alexis.
“I look at old videos of (Alexis) playing and I think, ‘I’m never going to be that good,’ ” she said.
Perhaps the biggest cause of pressure was the winning streak. Every game had added significance--and the media hype didn’t let the Gators forget it.
“It was really the newspapers that gave us the pressure,” Circle said.
But in the second round of the Santa Barbara Tournament of Champions, Brea Olinda ended the streak, 57-56. And after the tears, there was a sense of relief.
“It was horrible to lose,” Desautels said. “But it let a lot of pressure off.”