It’s been a long decade for the Mariner High School boys basketball program.
Ten years ago, the Marauders were finishing up the most successful three-year stretch in program history. The squad had just made its third straight appearance at the Class 4A state tournament in 2009, but headed into a steep decline after the departure of head coach Dexter Griffen.
Mariner won only one game the following season, five the next and suffered through a winless campaign a year later. Going into this season, the Marauders hadn’t posted a winning season since that 2009 squad left the court.
It was tough for the alumni of a once-proud program to witness the fall.
“When you go and play basketball in the community and say you went to Mariner and the younger kids are like, ‘Mariner, they’re terrible.’ And you’re like, ‘What? No. We’re Mariner. We’re good,’” said Tevin Dillon, a senior on the Marauders’ 21-win state tournament team in 2009. “It was a shock, and it’s never good to have that losing feeling in any community.”
This season, though, Mariner took significant steps toward returning to prominence, clinching its first winning season in a decade with a 59-42 victory over Kamiak on Jan. 25.
Once again, Dillon is in the middle of it. This time as the team’s head coach.
“(Our success) means everything to me,” said Dillon, in his third year at the helm. “I work hard for these guys, (and) they work hard for each other and the school. This school means a lot to me. This school helped me. My coach, Dexter Griffen, he did a lot for me. The basketball program did a lot for me. … I would love for them to get back to where we were and to obviously get a lot higher than we were.”
Dillon returned to the program as a freshman team coach for the 2014-15 season. The varsity team’s coach resigned after that season, and the Marauders were left coachless.
Admittedly, Dillon wasn’t ready for the role. That’s when Griffen, a longtime physical education teacher at Mariner, stepped in to mentor his former player.
Dillon said Griffen taught him how to truly be a “head guy” and has always been there to support him. He added that one of the biggest things Griffen instilled in him in his playing days was the discipline to succeed.
“It did so much for me in my life,” Dillon said, “so I want to do the same thing for these kids.”
Things didn’t take off immediately for Dillon and his squad. The team posted three-win campaigns in his first two seasons.
Dillon has used examples of his success in the program to motivate his players.
“He talks about how when he was a player how hard (they) had to work and how when he made it (to state) how much fun it was,” Marauders senior Christopher Hendrickson said. “That’s what makes me keep going. He keeps talking about it, and I want to get there. That’s why I keep pushing my teammates.”
Mariner’s success hasn’t been due to just Dillon’s work, though. The players have come together to form a bond stronger than that of past teams. Dillon, Hendrickson and senior Edwin Bouah said a lack of cohesion has been a problem for the program in the past.
Mariner graduated its two leading scorers from last season’s 3-17 team and sports a roster with just one new face. Yet the Marauders (11-8) have made an eight-win improvement — with the potential to add to that.
“We didn’t have chemistry, so we weren’t working good,” Bouah said. “But this year everyone wants to win, everybody wants to go further — to state. That’s our goal.”
Part of that chemistry is the result of familiarity.
“(In the past) nobody knew each other, really,” Hendrickson said. “Since we all grew up and really know each other now, it really helps communication.”
That chemistry has been evident in Mariner’s individual scoring throughout the season. They don’t have one or two players scoring 20 points per game. Instead the Marauders rely on a team effort, with everyone filling his role on any given night — whether that role is being the leading scorer or the player setting up his teammate.
Mariner has six players who average at least 7.4 points per game. Bouah’s 13-point average leads the team, followed by Diego Septimo-Ruiz (11.1), Henry Avra (10.8), Hendrickson (7.9), Tony MacArthur (7.4) and Elijah Harrell (7.4).
Dillon said he started to see the team’s cohesiveness this past summer at a tournament in Mountlake Terrace. Mariner played a couple of chippy games and the players were there to back each other up every step of the way. Mariner ended up taking home the tournament title.
That was a proud moment for the third-year head coach.
“Anytime the game gets heavy and it gets chippy, they’re always defending each other,” Dillon said. “… They fight for each other.”
The next step for the Marauders is to get through the 4A Wes-King District Tournament, starting with a loser-out home game Monday against Skyline (9-12). That contest will be milestone moment for most of the players — Bouah is the only player to have participated in a postseason game.
“At this point, it’s the biggest moment they’ve all played in, so it’s going to be everything,” Dillon said. “It might be a shock at first, but we have to realize the moment and do what we have to do. It’s win or go home, and if we can do it, we have to go to the next one and knock the next one down. The sky’s the limit. We’ve got the talent to do it. We have to believe in ourselves.”
If Marauders can get past Skyline, they need to post three more victories to get back to the state tournament for the first time since Dillon sent them there in 2009 on a game-winning layup in the final seconds of a playoff game against Jackson.
“I spend a lot of my time with these guys, and I got a lot of love for them,” Dillon said with a wide smile, “so it means everything for me to see them grow and be successful.”
For the kids who endured the lumps and growing pains of the past couple seasons, reaching the state tournament would be special.