It didn’t take Brian Hill long to realize he had something special brewing when practices started for the Glacier Peak High School girls basketball team before the 2017-18 season.
His squad was entering a rebuilding year after graduating a number of talented players from a team that finished runner-up at the Class 4A Hardwood Classic the season prior, but the incoming class of 2021 quickly showed it had the potential to rival the seniors who had just led the Grizzlies to a state title game.
“These guys came in as freshmen and they stood out really well,” Hill said. “I was like, ‘Oh man, this is gonna be good.’”
Good was an understatement.
Glacier Peak’s class of 2021 started to live up to its potential quickly. Some of the girls started to get their first taste of varsity basketball as freshmen, helping the Grizzlies to the state regionals.
Six of the nine members of the class of 2021 — Aaliyah Collins, Maya Erling, Madison Rubino, Malia Smith, Elyse Waldal and Maddy Thoma — were on the varsity roster by the end of the next season. They helped Glacier Peak to a 23-4 overall record, an undefeated season and league title in Wesco 4A, a Wes-King Bi-District Tournament championship game appearance and a fourth-place finish at the state tournament.
Those achievements came while Glacier Peak played a daunting schedule. The Grizzlies went 4-1 over five regular-season games against teams that made it to at least the regional round of the 4A or 3A state tournaments, including a win over 4A state runner-up Lewis Clark. The only loss came to eventual 3A state champion Prairie.
Then, in the bi-district tournament, Glacier Peak beat eventual 4A state champion Eastlake before losing to Woodinville in the title game.
The Grizzlies went on to lose their regional round game against defending 4A state champion Central Valley and eventually ended up in a quarterfinal matchup with Lewis Clark, which got its revenge against Glacier Peak by knocking the Grizzlies into the consolation bracket. That loss gave Glacier Peak a chance to redeem themselves against Woodinville and Central Valley, and earn a fourth-place state trophy.
“We were thinking state title after their sophomore year,” Hill said.
The Grizzlies nearly reached that milestone last season.
The class of 2021 had reached their junior year and expectations were high. Scorebook Live had Glacier Peak ranked as the preseason No. 1 in 4A.
The Grizzlies responded by going undefeated in Wesco 4A on their way to another league title. Their regular-season schedule featured six showdowns with 4A and 3A regional qualifiers, and they made it to the bi-district championship game again.
Unfortunately for the Grizzlies, eventual 4A state runner-up Woodinville stood in their way. Glacier Peak fell to the Falcons in an epic 62-57 overtime battle with a bi-district championship on the line.
“It was kind of the matchup everyone expected,” Hill said. “It was the number one team versus the number two team and (we) came up short in overtime.”
That loss resulted in Glacier Peak taking a hit in its Ratings Percentage Index ranking, the formula used to seed teams for the state tournament, setting up another trip to Spokane to face Central Valley in the regional round of the state tournament.
As a top-eight seed, the Grizzlies didn’t need a win to get to the Tacoma Dome, just as it was the year before, but a loss would mean the team needed to win four straight games in Tacoma to win a state title.
Central Valley, which went on to win the state title, made sure Glacier Peak would have to do it the hard way, besting the Grizzlies 67-49.
Glacier Peak came out victorious in a pair of tight games to start its run at the Tacoma Dome, but the team ran out of gas in a rematch with Woodinville in a state semifinal matchup. The Grizzlies rebounded from that loss to claim a third-place trophy.
Undoubtedly, Glacier Peak and its star-studded senior class were ready to make another deep state playoff run this season. But they never got the chance.
The coronavirus pandemic hit just as the 2020 state tournament was finishing. It was unclear at the time if it would affect the following season.
“Nobody really thought anything of it at the time,” Hill said. “We were like, ‘Next year, we’ll still be fine.’ And this thing really lasted a lot longer. When people started to talk about the reality that there might be no season, we’re sitting there twiddling our thumbs going, ‘Oh man, what an opportunity we’re really missing out on.’”
In February, when basketball teams would be preparing for the postseason in a normal year, a plan for a return to high school athletics was approved by Wesco athletic directors. The kicker: No postseason.
“This was kind of our year to win state,” said Thoma, who missed both her freshman and junior seasons with injuries. “Not being able to play in Tacoma this year kind of sucked.”
“It was pretty frustrating for all of us,” Waldal said. “We were pretty sad that there was no tournament or playoffs to prove ourselves again, but I think we’re all just thankful that we had a season because it wasn’t looking so good for a while. To be able to get a few games in our last year is great.”
The Grizzlies’ senior class certainly made the best out of their final season together. They steamrolled through their nine-game Wesco schedule without a loss, outscoring opponents by 21.6 points per game to earn the program’s first-ever unbeaten season. The short campaign even provided the team with a pair of high-caliber matchups with 2020 3A state semifinalist Arlington. Glacier Peak won those games by 11 and two points, apiece.
And although there were no highly anticipated rematches with Woodinville or Central Valley, or a state title to aim for this season, it doesn’t take away from a truly remarkable run for the Grizzlies’ senior class.
Over the past three seasons, Glacier Peak posted a 55-9 overall record and a 36-0 mark in league games. Members of the class of 2021 combined for 11 all-league selections.
“We’ve always been a really strong group and a really competitive team,” Smith said. “It’s been so fun playing with all these girls for so long. It’s a really special group.“
All six of the players who made the varsity roster as sophomores have signed letters of intent to play basketball in college. Collins (Chicago State University), Rubino (University of Idaho) and Smith (Tarleton State University) are heading to NCAA Division-I schools. Waldal will play at Division-III Linfield College. Erling is heading to Lane Community College and Thoma is attending Everett Community College, both NWAC schools.
Hill called this group “one of the most unselfish top-tier teams” that he’s ever seen or been a part of.
“Nobody cares how many points they score, which is typically the number one stat that most people are looking at,” he said. “They don’t care as long as we win.”
That unselfishness was on full display this season as five different players averaged at least eight points per game, with Collins, Erling, Smith and Rubino averaging double figures.
It’s perhaps the most impressive part of the Grizzlies’ stellar run, and it can be credited in part to the familiarity this core group of seniors has developed since they started playing together in the school’s feeder program.
All six of the seniors who are going on to play in college started playing together by at least the fifth grade.
“I know if this person does this move or if this person does this, I need to do this because we just know each other so well,” Rubino said.
Their bond also goes beyond the on-court success.
“I don’t think a lot of it will be the wins and losses that I’ll probably remember, maybe the (state playoff games),” Erling said. “Outside of that, it would just be the memories we made during team bonding, the trips to Spokane and goofing around in practice. A lot of it will be the off-court memories we got to make with each other.”
Here’s a look at some of the other top teams from the 2021 season:
After making a run to the 3A state semifinals last season, the Eagles (7-2) and their high-octane offense continued to pick apart Wesco competition during the shortened 2021 season. Arlington, which graduated just two seniors from last season’s third-place finish at state, averaged a Wesco-best 67.9 points per game and posted an average point differential of plus-17.3. Five of the Eagles’ seven victories came by 23 points or more, including blowout wins over four teams that finished .500 or better. Arlington’s only two losses came to unbeaten Glacier Peak, which included a down-to-the-wire, two-point loss that nearly derailed the Grizzlies’ perfect season.
Junior Keira Marsh led the Eagles with 18.0 points per game and tacked on 4.0 rebounds, 4.0 steals and 3.0 assists per contest. Sophomore Jenna Villa nearly averaged a double-double with 16.0 points and 8.0 rebounds per game. Senior Hailey Hiatt, a Western Washington University signee, added 9.0 points, 4.0 rebounds and 3.0 assists per contest.
The Wildcats (7-3) enjoyed a red-hot start to the season as they racked up six straight wins before ultimately finishing as one of three Wesco squads with at least seven wins this season. Archbishop Murphy’s defense led the way, surrendering just 40.8 points per game to lead Wesco. A pair of wins over 6-4 Cedarcrest and a victory over 6-3 Meadowdale highlighted the team’s first season under new head coach Ebany Herd.
Junior Taylor Reed averaged 16.9 points, 6.9 rebounds and 2.0 steals per game, and junior Taylor Campbell added 12.4 points, 4.2 rebounds and 4.0 steals per contest.
The Panthers earned their seventh consecutive season at .500 or better after finishing 6-4 against a schedule that included four combined matchups with area powers Glacier Peak and Arlington. Snohomish outscored opponents by over 20 points per game and allowed just 36.8 points per game in its six wins, holding opponents under 40 points four times. Its four losses came to the aforementioned Grizzlies and Eagles.
Junior Ella Gallatin led the Panthers in scoring and rebounding and recorded four double-doubles on the season. She averaged 20.0 points per game and eclipsed the 20-point mark on six different occasions.