For more than a decade, the Silver Bay girls basketball program hasn't been what one would call a success.
Since 2004-05, the best seasons the Mariners have posted are a pair of 6-19 campaigns last season. In 2007-08 and since Coach Dan Johnson took over the program in 2011-12, they had won just 18 games total, including a one win season just two years ago.
Except this year.
During the regular season this year, Silver Bay posted a 13-12 record and finished the season taking seven of its last eight games, including wins over both Carlton and McGregor — teams the Mariners lost to earlier in the season and have traditionally struggled against.
What's more, Silver Bay has a chance at 14 wins with its game Thursday, Feb. 22, against Nashwauk-Keewatin, a team with just two wins this season.
While Silver Bay has benefited from scheduling, four of its victories have come over Northeast Range and Wrenshall, who have three combined wins. Defensively, the Mariners have allowed more than 60 points just four times and 50 points on four other occasions.
Offensively, the Mariners still labor occasionally, scoring less than 30 five different times, but gone are the days when they would struggle to score 10 points in a half and sometimes an entire game.
"Our success this season started with our level of commitment, appreciation of patience, and resiliency to never quit," Johnson said. "These girls have put in a lot of hours over the last few summers."
Senior Jocelyn Russell, Silver Bay's leading scorer the last three seasons, said she started noticing a difference a couple of summers ago when girls began showing up to open gyms at William Kelley High School.
"When I first started playing, there would be open gyms all of the time, but no girls would go," Russell said. "Now, we all play whenever we can."
Work in the summers isn't the only reason the team has improved, nor is it even basketball-related. Johnson spends a lot of time working with his players on skills off the court as well because he believes high school sports is about much more than wins and losses — it's about developing lifelong skills.
"Coach J. gave us homework to write on a Google Docs page why we play basketball," junior Alexxa DeQuevedo said. "Afterward, we could go back and look at what everybody else wrote down and it was really nice to see what they wrote, which had a lot to do with being together as one. It wasn't just for the wins, or getting in shape — it was about being a part of something, knowing each other, trusting each other and becoming friends."
For Johnson, prep sports are an extension of the classroom and his coaching philosophy dictates developing his players into productive adults that contribute to their communities.
"For most of my players, their competitive basketball careers will end with the sound of the last buzzer," Johnson said. "It's not the basketball skills that will help them succeed in life, but the underlying skills they've hopefully acquired. I'm talking about commitment, determination, teamwork, grit, sportsmanship, developing a growth mindset ... If players are exposed to these attributes and are learning from that experience, I can truly say my program is successful."
Silver Bay will likely play Cook County in the opening round of the playoffs.