SportStars Magazine

Ruling the Empire

Long-tenured coaches Rick Demartini and Tom Bonfigli have become Redwood Empire basketball institutions .

By Harold Abend | Contributor

 

When the North Bay League boys and Marin County Athletic League girls basketball playoffs came to their conclusions on Feb. 18, there was little surprise as to which teams were victorious.

Because when it comes to Redwood Empire region basketball, the more things change the more they stay the same. 

The more they stay the same, the boys program of Cardinal Newman-Santa Rosa and the girls program of Marin Catholic-Kentfield will continue to reap the benefits.

 With 1,065 wins between them heading into the NCS playoffs on Feb. 21, it’s hard to ignore the continued success of the Cardinals’ Tom Bonfigli and Wildcats’ Rick DeMartini. With their 2011-12 teams boasting a combined mark of 44-10, that success doesn’t appear to be ending anytime soon.

“Last year’s team was 24-6 and we lost nine guys,” Bonfigli said after his team captured the 30-year veteran coach’s 11th North Bay League title in 18 years on his alma mater’s bench. The 58-46 defeat of Rancho Cotate-Rohnert Park in the NBL Tournament final was his 621st all-time. “This group has grown up a lot. I thought we’d be competitive, but I didn’t think we’d be 24-3 right now.”

Even if Bonfigli claims it was unexpected, it probably didn’t surprise many. Neither did the MCAL girls championship result — a 41-34 Marin Catholic win over San Marin-Novato, victory No. 444 in DeMartini’s career. The win also gave his team its fifth undefeated league season. The Wildcats began play in the NCS Division IV tournament on Feb. 22.

Clearly, the beat goes on. 

 

IN THE BEGINNING

Bonfigli very nearly chose a career spent in court, as opposed to on one. 

Upon returning home after graduating pre-law from Santa Clara University in early 1975, Bonfigli — a 1971 Cardinal Newman graduate and star for the Cardinals’ basketball program — was offered a teaching and coaching position at the school. 

“My old coaches, John Fitzgerald (who the Cardinal Newman gym is named after) and Ed Lloyd (217 wins from 1966-1995 as a football coach at Newman, Piner-Santa Rosa and Analy-Sebastopol) wanted me to come back to coach and teach,” Bonfigli said. 

He couldn’t resist. 

In 1976 Bonfigli accepted the position and by the 1980-1981 season he had replaced his mentor Fitzgerald as the varsity head coach. Along the way Bonfigli has taught everything except foreign language. He currently teaches five periods of World History.

“In 35-years of teaching, I’ve taught PE, English, religion, theology, anthropology, math, biology, all the social sciences, AP World History and American History, economics and American Government.”

In 1979, DeMartini began a career as a plumber while he and wife Elaine prepared to raise a family in Marin. In the early 80’s, he began coaching freshman football at Marin Catholic as well as CYO boys basketball.

“My mother in law, Joanne Greco, and her friend, Barbara Figone, would come to basketball games and tell me I couldn’t coach,” DeMartini mused. “I told them ‘OK, you guys coach.’ So they did and took on a fourth-grade girls team. After three weeks, I got a call from them asking to come help them. I ended up taking over.” 

The DeMartini household quickly had the first two of its three kids — Craig, currently 28-years old, and Sabrina, now 25 — so besides earning a living working for a plumbing contractor, he was needed at home.

“My wife told me to make a choice between football and basketball.” 

The rest is history.

 

TWISTS AND TURNS

Most 30-year coaching careers don’t unfold without a few detours along the way. Bonfigli had his share. 

After several successful seasons including the 1989 state finals, Bonfigli left Newman in 1994 for personal reasons. 

He moved over to Justin-Siena-Napa where he taught and won 225 games in 12-years coaching the Braves.

Bonfigli came back to Newman in 2007, but just prior to returning home, his wife Norma Jean passed away suddenly from an aneurysm. She leaves behind Jeffrey Ferguson, a 1996 Cardinal Newman graduate and Bonfigli’s stepson. 

Despite it all, with 396 wins at Newman, Bonfigli is the winningest coach in both schools’ histories. His 621 combined win total makes him second active winningest coach in Northern California history behind Don Lippi of St. Joseph Notre Dame-Alameda. Lippi entered the NCS playoffs with 695 victories.

“He built character within the team concept,” said Sheridan Silver, a member of Bonfigli’s 1989 state runner-up team that went on to play at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. “Part of that is individual performance and striving to get better, but never forgetting it’s about the team.”

There have been less twists to DeMartini’s career. Once he finally was named the girls varsity coach at Marin Catholic in 1992 — one year after being passed over for the same position — he went to work building the foundation for his program. In just six years, the Wildcats won their first of three NCS Division IV championships. 

And he continues to work by day as a plumber, acting as the Building Operations Plumber at City Hall in San Francisco. His day begins at 5 a.m. so that he can be back across the Golden Gate Bridge in time to run a practice 12 hours later. 


LASTING IMPRESSIONS

Getting former players to speak highly of the two coaches isn’t difficult. It’s second nature for most. 

“In four years of playing for Coach Bonfigli I went through a lot of ups and downs but he was always there for me as a coach, friend and mentor,” said 2011 NBL Player of the Year, Bobby Sharp, who is currently starring for the Santa Rosa Junior College men’s team. “He’s the best coach I ever played for.”  

Bonfigli cherishes every relationship he’s made with players. 

“My legacy is making a difference in kids lives,” Bonfigli remarked. “My fondest memories are when my kids come back to games. They’re like extended family.”  

Meanwhile, DeMartini is building relationships with players he hasn’t even coached yet.

“I know a lot of young girls that come up to him and tell him they want to play for him,” said current Wildcats star Emily Easom, the school’s all-time leading 3-point shooter. “We love playing for him. It helps he had a daughter. He relates to all the girls and knows how to communicate and talk with us. He’s like a second dad to me.”

Four-year Marin Catholic player Adrienne (Payne) Shierk was a senior on the 2002 state championship team. She went on to play at West Point where she graduated as a First Lieutenant and served a tour in Iraq. She’s now married and working as a consultant in San Diego. 

“As a nervous freshman he built my confidence up,” Shierk said. “He always had a positive attitude that was contagious. Rick gave us a real sense that hard work and dedication can bring success, and that was something I carried to West Point.”

Jennifer (Enos) Imbimbo, a four-year player who was a senior on the 1998 team that won DeMartini’s first MCAL playoff title, remembers her coach just as fondly. 

“Its no wonder he’s been coaching 20 years. Rick has always had so much fun. Almost as much as the players,” she said. “He also takes the time to get to know each individual player.”

As each coach prepares to dive into another postseason with dreams of playing through the month of March, neither has any plans to call it a career yet. 

“My energy level is high and my health is good,” Bonfigli said. “The administration is supportive. I have no thoughts about retirement.”

That means more of the same in the Redwood Empire. 

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