MOUNTLAKE TERRACE — Reflecting on how far Mariner’s long-struggling girls basketball program has come in recent years, senior Hannah Hezekiah thought back to her freshman season when the team managed just four wins.
“(Opponents) used to look at us like they were going to blow us out before they even played us,” she said.
But after a 7-1 start this season, the Marauders are certainly far from the pushover they’ve been in years past.
“It’s been a lot different from my freshman year to now,” Hezekiah said Tuesday after Mariner’s sixth consecutive win, a 74-44 rout of Mountlake Terrace in the opener of the annual Mountlake Terrace Holiday Tournament.
“We definitely have changed so much. It’s good to feel like we can play with any team. We’ve definitely improved a lot.”
Mariner hasn’t had a winning season in more than two decades. Between 2004 and 2014, the Marauders averaged less than three wins per year and never won more than six games in a season. The dismal stretch included a pair of winless campaigns in 2009-10 and 2012-13.
But the program is trending upward.
After one win in 2013-14 and four wins in 2014-15, Mariner is coming off back-to-back eight-win seasons. And the Marauders (7-1 overall, 3-0 Wesco 4A) appear poised to surge past that win total this season, with seven victories and counting.
“It’s been a lot of growing pains,” Mariner coach Corey Gibb said of his 11 seasons at the helm. “But to go from where we were 11 years ago to now, it’s huge.
“I think the message was sent that we have an opportunity to do something really special,” he added. “And the girls took it to heart and are taking a lot of pride in the job that they’re doing right now.”
Two integral pieces to Mariner’s rise have been senior guards Hezekiah and Denisa Grebovic, both of whom are four-year varsity starters. Hezekiah is averaging 16.4 points per game this season and Grebovic averages 12.1.
“At times, we’ve pulled our hair out — all of us,” Gibb said of the struggles he and the senior duo have endured over the past few years. “But they’ve grown up a lot. They’ve taken much more of a leadership role and have done a really good job of helping the younger girls.
“I’ve appreciated the time that they’ve put in. It’s helped turn the program around.”
Yet while Hezekiah and Grebovic helped begin the turnaround, the addition of freshman phenom Taliyah Clark has elevated the Marauders to a new level.
Clark, a versatile 5-foot-10 scorer, is averaging a team-high 22.3 points per game this season. She has scored at least 20 points in each of the last four games, including a season-high 35 in Tuesday’s victory over Mountlake Terrace (1-8) and 34 in a Dec. 15 win over Mukilteo School District rival Kamiak.
With the addition of Clark, the Marauders now have a talented trio of scorers that’s averaging more than 50 points combined per game. The three standouts accounted for 67 of Mariner’s 74 points Tuesday, with Hezekiah scoring 19 and Grebovic adding 13.
“We had two (standouts) — Denisa and Hannah,” Gibb said of his team in recent years. “And we always said, ‘If we had three, we’d be really tough.’ And (Clark) is the third.”
The highlight of Mariner’s season thus far was a 71-68 rivalry win over Kamiak earlier this month. It was the Marauders’ first victory over Kamiak in approximately two decades, Gibb said.
“It was like we’d won the state title,” Gibb said of the milestone win. “We’ve come close (before). But to finally be able to actually go out and beat them — what an experience.”
Gibb said one of the biggest factors behind Mariner’s success this season is the number of players that have played select basketball.
“We had six or seven girls that participated in select this past spring and summer,” Gibb said. “That’s up from two (a few) years ago. That increased court presence and experience has been very helpful.”
Mariner has faced a relatively light schedule to this point, with its eight opponents having combined for just 14 victories entering Tuesday. The Marauders have won three games by at least 30 points and also have excelled in close contests, winning three games by four points or less.
Mariner concludes its non-league slate Wednesday against Marysville Getchell in the Mountlake Terrace Holiday Tournament. The Marauders resume conference play Jan. 3 against Lake Stevens.
“We definitely have a winning mindset,” Hezekiah said. “We want to go out there and beat the teams that we’ve never beaten before. And we’re starting to do that.”