Brian Hill was rattled after his Glacier Peak girls basketball team lost its season-opening game to Stanwood on Nov. 30, enough so that he decided to call an old friend for advice.
Before that contest, the Grizzlies had every right to feel pretty good about themselves. Led by three NCAA Division-I recruits, they were the consensus pick to win the Wesco 4A title. After falling just short of advancing to the Hardwood Classic in the previous two years, they talked openly about how they were going to let nothing get in their way of a state-tournament berth this season. They went into the Stanwood game with confidence.
Perhaps too much confidence, as things turned out.
“I put a little bit of pressure on them. Maybe a lot of pressure,” Hill, Glacier Peak’s coach, said. “We went in there probably overconfident. We knew we were playing a good Stanwood team, (but) we kind of had this swagger about us — (we had an) ‘OK, you guys can stop playing now because you know we’re supposed to win’ type of an attitude. It never happened, and it got worse and worse and worse.”
After the Grizzlies’ 81-76 defeat, Hill got in touch with Snohomish coach Ken Roberts, who Hill worked with on the Panthers’ staff for several years before taking the Glacier Peak job.
“I said, ‘I can’t believe it. I don’t know what to do,’ ” Hill said. “He said, ‘Last year, we lost to you, Lynnwood and Arlington our first three games, and we played in the state championship game. I would trade those three games to be in the state-championship game again. Keep your head up, get them back on track, and if you lose the one game and end up in the championship game, who cares? It’s where you’re going, not where you’ve been.’ ”
As it turned out, the Grizzlies are going exactly where they wanted to go all along. They’ve won 22 straight games after the Stanwood loss to clinch Wesco 4A and 4A District 1 titles and a spot in this week’s Hardwood Classic at the Tacoma Dome. They open tournament play Thursday against Auburn Riverside or Sunnyside.
“It feels good because in fifth grade we all went to the dome, and we were like, ‘We’re going to play here someday,’ ” said Glacier Peak senior post Kayla Watkins. “For every team, the ultimate goal is to get to the dome. But I think our goal this year was to play with each other, because when we play with each other, we’re unstoppable.”
The Grizzlies point to the Stanwood loss as a crucial moment in their season, even if it was the first game of the year.
“It was,” Glacier Peak senior guard Paisley Johnson said, “probably the best thing that happened to us. It showed us that (reaching our goals) was going to be a step-by-step process. Losing to Stanwood was a big lift off our shoulders, actually.”
“I think it took a lot of pressure off because we realized that we aren’t perfect and we’re not going to be perfect, and there’s still room for improvement, and we still have to get better for the rest of the season,” said Grizzlies senior point guard Samantha Fatkin. “It humbled us.”
Glacier Peak suffered some humbling losses in the previous two years that kept it from its ultimate goal.
Last season, injuries to Fatkin and Watkins played a key role in the Grizzlies’ elimination from the 3A District 1 tournament. The year before, they ended the regular season ranked No. 3 in the Associated Press 3A state poll, only to lose to fifth-ranked Cleveland, the two-time defending state champion, in the state regional round.
“Last year wasn’t (as) bad because they knew there were things that were out of their control,” Hill said. “Two years ago was harder, because we beat Lynnwood, which ended up state champions, and Arlington, which took fourth. It was hard to see everyone winning, and we’re out.”
“It breaks you. It breaks you,” Johnson said about the season-ending losses. “After the Cleveland game, I went (to the Tacoma Dome) with my AAU coach, and I started bawling once I saw the dome. I was like, ‘Are you kidding me?’ It was brutal. Brutal. I wanted to be there, but I didn’t want to be there at all.
“We had the potential these last three, four years to go and do big things at the end of the season, but (we) just kept falling short. I think that this year, with me, Sam and Kayla being seniors, we understood that this is the time to put in the work. We’ve put in so much (work) already. I wasn’t going to give anything up or do anything less to give up that chance of doing something that I really wanted to do — go to the dome.”
There have been some challenges along the way.
While Hill values his team’s competitiveness, maturity and ability to work well together, he’s efforted to make sure his players avoid the type of complacency that can set in when a team wins big almost every game.
Fatkin, Watkins and Johnson have compiled the bulk of the team’s statistics, but Hill works hard to remind the rest of the players that their contributions are vital to the team’s success.
All season long, the players knew they were favored to win just about every game they played. They knew they were expected to have a fantastic season and make a deep playoff push.
They refused to shrink under that kind of spotlight, though. The tight-knit group of players has fun off the court by participating in a variety of group activities. For instance, they enjoy making YouTube videos; some of their greatest hits include a montage of their December trip to San Diego and a ‘vlog’ of a school dance they attended together.
“There was some pressure on us, but I think we responded well to it,” Fatkin said. “We all came in with the same mindset, and we haven’t lost it all season. I feel like in past years we haven’t all been on the same page, but we are this year, and it shows. We’re all super close, and we have a lot of fun, too. We’re together when we don’t have to be.”
“There’s (been) times with my teams that I don’t even want to talk about the Tacoma Dome, and there’s teams that I want to talk about it (with) all the time,” Hill said. “This team needs to know what the overall final goal is, and we’re still not there. From what I’ve seen in Tacoma, can we make a run? I hope we can. This is probably Glacier Peak’s best team. I think we can win down there.”