By Aaron Swaney Herald Writer
Everybody loves a winner.
Just ask any of the 700,000 people who crammed into downtown Seattle earlier this week to celebrate a pro franchise’s first Super Bowl championship. A winner can galvanize a city, a town, a school.
But for every winner there’s a loser. A player who might have to shoulder the blame, a team that couldn’t get it done in the clutch, a set of fans who won’t be celebrating. That’s a far lonelier place.
A few hours after the Seahawks paraded around Seattle, throwing Skittles at fans and showing off their new hardware, the Mariner High School girls basketball team quietly played its last game of the season, losing by 50 points to the No. 1-ranked team in the state. It was loss No. 19 in a season full of struggles. It was the end of an era for seven seniors, who went 1-39 in their two seasons leading the Marauders.
But this isn’t pro sports, or even college sports. There’s no high-priced contracts or full-ride scholarships on the line. This is high school sports. This is about student-athletes who get up while it’s still dark to go to something called “zero” period; who take honors classes and pass them with flying colors; who sacrifice time, energy and money to play a game that, frankly, they’re not very gifted at.
This is about a group of girls who play basketball not because it might get them into college, but because they can’t think of doing anything else after school. This is about a group of girls who fought through the shame that comes with losing by an average of 35 points per game because they actually look forward to practice. This is about group that battled a lack of support from family and the ridicule of classmates because it hurts worse to quit on each other.
Something about basketball
Kylie Aio still remembers trying to recruit her friend Diana Dinh to play basketball. The two were fourth-graders and Dinh wasn’t all that interested in sports.
“She just wanted to play on the monkey bars,” Aio said.
Eventually Dinh relented and Aio taught her the basics of the game. Dribbling between the legs was a particularly tough thing for Dinh to pick up as she would just kick her leg straight forward off the ground and throw the ball under it. It was an inauspicious beginning.
Three years later, in seventh grade, the two recruited classmates Realene Nicolas, Naomi Eastland, Bianca Bayas and Veronica Flores to play on the Voyager Middle School team. A year later, Arnela Grebovic joined them from rival Explorer Middle School and the seven girls became inseparable. They were friends on and off the court.
“We thought it would be fun to try out sports,” Bayas said. “We tried volleyball and track, but they never clicked like basketball.”
Though basketball clicked, the Voyager teams the girls played on weren’t known for winning any more than the Mariner teams. At a time when most kids start playing organized sports in first or second grade, starting in the seventh grade puts one woefully behind. The girls battled as underclassmen on the freshman and junior-varsity teams and learned to stick together from their JV coach, Walt Antoncich, a man they called “Grandpa Walt.”
Like Mariner’s student body, the seven girls have diverse backgrounds. Nicolas and Flores are Filipino, Grebovic is Russian, Eastland is part African-American. They’re all different. Flores dreams of becoming a flight attendant. Aio plans to go into the Navy to become a pilot. Eastland wants to be an athletic trainer; Bayas a pediatric oncologist. All seven plan to go college.
Despite the losses, the girls grew closer, knitted together by basketball.
“I feel that without basketball, we might not be friends, but I’m glad we are,” Grebovic said.
Last year as juniors, the seven girls were asked by coach Corey Gibb to be leaders and contributors on the varsity team. Things didn’t go well, however, as the team lost every game and was competitive in just a handful.
“Last year was really hard. It was how we lost, too,” Bayas said. “It was hard, but having my teammates for support … that’s why I stayed. Something about basketball just keeps bringing us back.”
Things were not going to get better this year. Gibb knew that even if his players put in maximum effort to get better over the offseason, the other girls in the league, already more talented, would get better as well.
“How many of our kids could go play at Jackson? Maybe one,” Gibb said. “We’re asked to throw out four more that wouldn’t make any other team in the league. These are smart girls, they get it. We just ask them to control what they can control.”
It didn’t help that Grandpa Walt left. The assistant coach who had guided them through their freshman and sophomore years took an assistant coaching job at Jackson, the basketball hotbed just across freeway.
“He really believed in us. He was the first one to inspire us to stick together,” Grebovic said. “We depended on him a lot.”
Changing the culture
The history of sports at Mariner High School, which opened in 1970, has been mixed. For years, the Marauders were a powerhouse in many sports, both boys and girls. Recently the football team has had success under longtime head coach John Ondriezek, going to the playoffs and producing one of the best recruits in the state of Washington in KeiVarae Russell just two years ago. The boys soccer team was a state participant last season and the wrestling team just finished second in league.
But girls athletics at Mariner have struggled mightily in recent years. The girls basketball team has actually done the best, with seven wins in three years. The girls soccer team hasn’t won a game in the past six seasons and often gives up double-digit goals. The volleyball team has won four matches in three seasons, the softball team one game in three years.
Part of the problem is the fact that with open enrollment in the Mukilteo School District, many of the best athletes choose to attend Kamiak High School because of factors that include prestige and better facilities. It’s a problem coaches at Mariner have struggled with since Kamiak opened in 1993.
“A lot of basketball talent revolves around money because you have your camps and individualized training,” Gibb said. “They’ve definitely built a tradition of stronger basketball teams. But until you have some of those kids and parents who say we don’t necessarily need the winning all the time but want the academics and supportive culture, you’re going to struggle.”
With six years at Mariner, Gibb is one of the longest-tenured girls coaches at the school. First-year Mariner athletic director Nate DuChesne is still trying to get a grasp on what his school’s strengths and weaknesses are, but he understands that it starts with coaching.
“While some of our sports programs have had some stability, many of them, particularly our girls teams, have had a high turnover in coaches,” DuChesne said. “This makes it very difficult to develop a total program.
“Coaches have a big impact on the culture of athletics, and Mariner has some very good coaches who are committed to the student-athletes we have here,” DuChesne continued. “Other coaches here will need to decide whether they want to put in the time and energy to tackle the challenges we are facing.”
One of the first steps DuChesne took was to implement a year-round strength and conditioning program free to all Mariner athletes. Kevin Anderson, a former college trainer and a trainer at IRG Performance and Fitness in Everett, is heading up the program. A similar program run by IRG coordinated strength and conditioned drills last summer for the Mariner football team.
“We need to figure out ways to access these resources if we are to close the gap,” DuChesne said.
Another concern is parent involvement. Unwilling to comment on other sports, Gibb said that his experience with Mariner parents is completely different from his time at Arlington. Instead of dealing with parents angry over their child’s playing time, he’s just trying to get parents involved.
A few years ago one of his parents called him speaking loudly in Vietnamese. Since he didn’t speak Vietnamese and she didn’t speak English, the two simply yelled back and forth for a few minutes before the parent got flustered and hung up. It’s an example of the miscommunication that is inherent with being a coach at a school with such cultural diversity.
“We’ve reached out to parents, but there’s a lot of cultural differences at Mariner so I don’t know if it’s cultural or they’re just busy,” Gibb said. “There are a lot of benefits to playing sports and I think some parents don’t know the benefits. They just think that a kid’s going to be gone for two hours tonight when they could have a job or be babysitting.”
Gibb said he met some of the parents of his senior players for the first time last week on Senior Night.
A basketball family
In September, The Atlantic magazine ran a story that asked the question: “Are high school sports bad for students?” The basic premise of the article was that all the time, money and effort American high school students spend on athletics takes away from academics and has helped American students lag behind the rest of the world academically.
Don’t tell that to those playing on Mariner High’s girls basketball team.
“Basketball keeps us in check,” Nicolas said. “Being close with these girls, we keep each other in check and make sure we have good grades so that we can play.”
Besides keeping their grades up, the girls have learned life lessons on the court — lessons many people don’t learn until well into adulthood: How to lose gracefully, how to get up over and over again after getting knocked down, how to work as a team even in the face of insurmountable odds. No member of the Mariner girls basketball team ever quit despite the fact they went into just about every game with no realistic chance of winning.
“We understand that compared to other teams we’re not as skilled, we’re not as tall … that’s something we understand,” Grebovic said. “And I’m competitive, so losing is hard. But it’s good to learn that you can’t win at everything. I think when it comes to school and volunteering, we’re the winners there. On the basketball court it’s a way to learn how to handle tough situations and still work through that.”
When he took over the Mariner girls basketball program six years ago, Gibb didn’t know what he’d gotten himself into. Coming from a successful program with plenty of parental support like Arlington, Gibb was surprised when a little more than 20 kids turned out that first year and there was little excitement around the program. But slowly, despite the losing, he’s built a program that saw 60 girls turn out this past season. The girls credit Gibb with changing the culture.
“Gibb is like our dad,” Nicolas said. “I have a home family and then I have a basketball family. Gibb is really caring on and off the court. Even if it’s not related to basketball we can always go and talk to him. I think the other students see that and want to be a part of that.”
Gibb admitted that the losing can be tough. “At one point in time in my career the winning and losing was the most important thing. It’s secondary now,” he said. More important now is seeing the girls give their all. That is a legacy far more important to leave behind than winning.
During a recent game against Cascade, despite being down by close to 20 points, the Mariner girls battled hard in the game’s final minutes, diving for loose balls, taking charges, making the extra pass, and lost by 10. Nobody talked about moral victories. It was just another game. Another loss.
“They’ll be down 50 and they’re still running hard and we’re still calling timeouts,” Gibb said. “I want to give them the full experience. They’ve always been that way. I’ve never had to ask for them to give more effort.”
Amanda Anderson, who played at Mariner and for Gibb from 2008-09, said her former coach’s perseverance has been the key to bringing stability to a program that is helping mold young people.
“When I look back, I think I had a different coach for every season of every sport. It’s hard to maintain coaches when you’re not winning,” Anderson said. “It’s hard to find someone who is willing to stay. Coach Gibb has stuck it out.”
Anderson is now a special education office assistant at Mariner and volunteers to help the team she used to play on.
Legacy of hard work
Unlike last season, this year’s Mariner girls team tasted victory. The Marauders jumped out to a lead and held off Seattle Academy, a small private school, 46-34, in a non-league game. After the game, the girls patiently shook hands with their opponent and then sprinted to the locker room, where they unleashed a giant group scream.
“We were like ‘OK guys, we have to act like we’ve done this before,’” Dinh said. “So we ran to the locker room and we waited until everyone got there and just cheered and cheered.”
The victory made all of the ridicule from classmates and opponents melt away.
“It felt so nice,” Eastland said. “We’ve lost hundreds of games. It felt nice to prove people who said we couldn’t win wrong.”
Winning won’t be the legacy this team leaves behind. Instead it’ll be the early-morning practices the girls showed up to despite the fact they knew their next game wasn’t going to be a victory. It’ll be the piling into cars to head to Arlington to cheer on the young son of coach Gibb during one of his youth games. It’ll be the sisterhood they’ve created that will last much longer than the four years they spent in school.
On Wednesday, the girls played their final game of the season and lost to Lynnwood 68-18. The game was never competitive and afterward the girls cried together and said their good-byes to coaches and each other. Gibb said that on Thursday he received a text from one of the players around the team’s usual practice time that said, in essence, I don’t know what to do.
Everything considered, the conclusion of Mariner High basketball careers is more of a beginning than an end.
“It’s not the end of anything,” Grebovic said. “Our friendship will continue and that’s the most important thing we’ll take with us. We won’t remember the scores in 20 or 30 years, but we’ll remember who we spent time with.”
Gibb said that despite the lopsided scores and the lack of a league victory this season, he couldn’t be prouder of his seven seniors.
“It was a proud moment,” Gibb said of the final game. “Just the fact these girls made it four years. I told them afterwards you don’t get to go back and do it again. They left it all out there on the court. They started it and finished it they way they wanted to. Their legacy is hard work and effort, and they can be happy with that.”