STEWART WON'T SETTLE: Templeton senior is the Jay Cowitz Tribune County Player of the Year

Forward's desire to improve her game led Eagles to new heights

ajankowski@thetribunenews.comMarch 28, 2014 

For all of the shots Mari Stewart made during her illustrious basketball career at Templeton High, it’s the misses — and how she handled them — that coach Shawn Koehler will remember most about his program-changing player.

Take, for example, the first time Koehler ever watched her on the court. Stewart was a freshman playing junior varsity while Koehler was in his second year coaching a varsity team he described as “traditionally a bye game for opponents.”

It didn’t take long for him to see that help was on the way.

“Her first freshman game, I saw her miss a shot from 8 or 10 feet, get her own rebound, miss the shot again, get the rebound, throw it up again and make the shot,” the coach recalled. “I thought, ‘Wow, this girl is going to be something special.’

“She follows her shot like I’ve never seen, boy or girl. She’s relentless that way.”

By the time Stewart reached varsity as a sophomore, more of those first shots were falling, and her tireless hustle remained the same.

“Her drive is unparalleled,” Koehler said. “You just don’t get that. I’ve been coaching for a long time and I’ve had a couple of really hard workers, but nothing like this.”

In just three years of varsity basketball, Stewart scored 1,490 points, grabbed 1,286 rebounds — 519 on the offensive glass — and was the cornerstone of a storied senior class that changed the culture of Templeton girls basketball.

The Eagles were 8-55 overall and 2-34 in league play in the three years before Stewart, Autumn Russell, Marissa Torres, Briana Belmonte, Paige O’Sullivan, Megan Hattar, Hailey Sudbrink and Lauren Stuedemann arrived on campus.

They went 67-16 overall and 32-4 in league the past three seasons.

“We got the reputation of not having good girls sports,” Stewart said of her hometown. “So, when we came in, we kind of wanted to transform it. (Our success) is going to help the reputation and help people strive to be better.”

Stewart is this year’s Jay Cowitz Award winner as The Tribune County Player of the Year after posting a double-double in every game this season, when the Eagles beat long-time league rival Morro Bay for the first time and captured their first Los Padres League title.

For Stewart, this year’s accomplishments are not only shared with her teammates, but with the town she’s spent her entire life in.

“I didn’t want to ever settle,” she said. “Working hard is so that I can maybe make a name for Templeton … you know, put Templeton on the map.”

A season to remember

Templeton won 23 of 26 games this year, including all 12 LPL contests for the first time in school history. The Eagles scored 57.5 points per game while allowing just 39.8, outscoring league opponents by even more — 61.6-38.3. They averaged 12 assists per contest and 13 steals, and had won 15 straight games before falling in the second round of the playoffs.

When you reach Stewart’s individual statistics, the numbers get even more impressive. Her 17.2 rebounds per game ranked in the top 10 in the state (tied for eighth) and were 26th in the nation, according to MaxPreps.com. Dating back to her junior season, Stewart finished her high school career with 29 straight games of at least 10 points and 10 rebounds.

“She lets her actions speak for herself,” Koehler said. “She’s not a big thump-her-chest kind of girl. She quietly goes out and gets her 20 points and 15 rebounds a game.”

Stewart averaged 21.7 points per game and shot a league-best 49 percent from the floor. Out of 152 free-throw attempts, she made 112, which is five more than anyone else in the LPL even attempted.

She scored 23 points and had 19 rebounds in a 66-46 season-opening victory over Atascadero — the Eagles’ first triumph over their North County rival. She had 19 points and 19 boards in a 49-45 overtime thriller at Morro Bay, thus ending the Pirates’ 31-game league win streak.

In the regular-season finale against Nipomo, Stewart nearly outscored the Titans herself when she went for 31 points and 21 rebounds in a 71-37 win.

Her high school career ended with an 18-point, 14-rebound performance in a 54-33 loss at Whitney in the second round of the CIF-Southern Section Division 4AA tournament.

“I’ll never play with these girls again, so that was kind of difficult to go through, but it was also great to look back on our season,” Stewart said. “We ended our time here with an awesome season.”

At a hair above 6-foot, Stewart doesn’t own an overwhelming size advantage against other power forwards.

Instead, she worked to perfect her mid-range shooting with an over-the-head release she credits middle school and freshman coach Diane DeCree with drilling into her memory.

“We would go out to the outdoor courts and shoot one-handed shots for what felt like forever,” Stewart recalled. “She told me to stay strong and not let anyone change it.”

Koehler said he often will tinker with the shooting mechanics of new players, but with Stewart and the rest of the distinguished Class of 2014 — which also featured first-team all-county selections Torres and Russell — he didn’t change a thing.

“When those girls can score like that,” Koehler said, “you take what’s given to you.”

Stewart averaged more than 15 points and 14 rebounds in each of her first two varsity seasons, but still was not about to let her game plateau.

So Stewart decided to increase her time on the court, even if it meant also increasing the mileage on her car.

Always looking to improve

As a coach at West Coast Premier Basketball Academy, which boasts names such as Connecticut standout Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis and 2012 McDonald’s All-American Jordan Adams on its alumni page, Monica Armstrong has seen talent.

She’s seen plenty of it go to waste, too.

“There are those superstars who, as a coach, you think are everything that you could ever want,” Armstrong said. “But then they are lazy in practice and eventually become lazy in games.

“That’s not Mari at all. She will run through a brick wall for any coach and buy into any system.”

Stewart played on Armstrong’s 17-under club team last summer, coming off the bench for a program that works to prepare its players for college basketball.

Stewart drove three-plus hours (both ways, in addition to traffic) to Los Angeles every weekend, sometimes joined by her older sister, Brooke, who also played basketball at Templeton and is a student at Cal Poly.

The two would hit the road at 3 a.m. in order to make an 8 a.m. practice, and Stewart would stay as late as possible before heading back to Templeton with school the next day.

“She’d get here before girls who lived five minutes away,” Armstrong said. “She was the first to the gym and the last to leave.”

Stewart continued to make the weekend commute after the season ended, this time to work one-on-one with Stan Delus, another West Coast Premier coach.

The duo continued to improve Stewart’s all-around game, drilling post-up and off-dribble moves to round out her offensive arsenal.

“What I love about Mari is, she’d take what I taught her on Sunday and apply it throughout the week,” said Delus, an assistant with Armstrong at Mt. San Antonio College. “When she would come back the next Sunday, you could see she’d been working on it.”

In addition to her post game, Delus has also helped Stewart’s post-high school prospects. Stewart has gained interest from Vermont, UC Irvine and Florida Atlantic, among others, and she’s still deciding whether to stay in the state she loves or seek new scenery.

Her previous coaches agreed that whomever Stewart’s next coach becomes, he or she will get a player ready to prove her worth and help the team in the process.

“She’s going to do her part in the system, and once she figures it out, she’s going to lead other people in that system,” Armstrong said. “Anyone who takes a shot on her will be rewarded in full.”

For Stewart, just another opportunity is reward enough.

“I couldn’t imagine life without sports,” she said. “I know for some people that’s band or art, but I couldn’t imagine not playing. Every day when I go out there, it’s like, ‘What if this is your last day?’ So, I’ve just got to keep going.”

ALL-COUNTY TEAMS

JAY COWITZ TRIBUNE COUNTY PLAYER OF THE YEAR
Mari Stewart, Templeton, Senior

ALL-COUNTY FIRST TEAM
Ashlyn Herlihy, Arroyo Grande, Sophomore; Jessica Judge, San Luis Obispo, Senior; Autumn Russell, Templeton, Senior; Sierra Schwellenbach, Morro Bay, Senior; Marissa Torres, Templeton, Senior

ALL-COUNTY SECOND TEAM
Sabrina Degnan, Atascadero, Junior; Olivia Galindo, Arroyo Grande, Junior; Maddie Leong, Atascadero, Junior; Nikki Machado, Morro Bay, Senior; Kara Schmidt, Morro Bay, Senior; I’raya Smith, Mission Prep, Sophomore

ALL-COUNTY HONORABLE MENTION
Stephanie Brenner, San Luis Obispo, Sophomore; Roni Garrison, Coastal Christian, Junior; Melody Ayers, Atascadero, Senior; Noelle Laird, Mission Prep, Sophomore; Olivia MacDonald, Morro Bay, Junior; Taylor Nevitt, Nipomo, Senior

JAY COWITZ TRIBUNE COUNTY PLAYERS OF THE YEAR

Starting in 2004, the Jay Cowitz Award given annually to The Tribune’s County Player of the Year
2014    Mari Stewart    Templeton        Senior
2013    Hannah Gilbert    Morro Bay        Senior
2012    Jenna Dunbar    Mission Prep    Senior
2011    Megan Hansen    Morro Bay        Senior
2010    Raven Taylor    Atascadero    Senior
2009    Kelsey Wagner    Arroyo Grande    Senior
2008    Leigh Yetter    Mission Prep    Senior
2007    Hannah Donaghe    Atascadero    Senior
2006     Kelly Blair         Morro Bay         Senior
2005    Kelly Blair        Morro Bay        Junior   
2004    Katherine Suderman    Mission Prep    Senior
2003    Katherine Suderman    Mission Prep    Junior
2002    Katherine Suderman    Mission Prep          Sophomore
2001    Karena Bonds    Morro Bay        Senior
2000    Leeane Jensen    Morro Bay        Senior
1999    Paige Billingsley    Mission Prep    Senior
1998    Stephanie Brown    Arroyo Grande    Senior
1997    Shawna Robinson    Atascadero    Senior
1996    Anna-Lisa Epperson    Mission Prep    Senior
1995    Anna-Lisa Epperson    Mission Prep    Junior
1994    Staci Andrews    Arroyo Grande    Senior
1993    Staci Andrews    Arroyo Grande    Junior
1992    Sara Pierce    Morro Bay        Senior
1991    Sara Pierce    Morro Bay        Junior
1990    Jennifer Myers    Morro Bay        Senior
1989    Angela West    Morro Bay        Senior
1988    Heather Norman    Arroyo Grande    Senior
1987    Shelley Hoban    Atascadero    Senior
1986    Laurel Runels    Arroyo Grande    Senior
    Soti Brazel        Atascadero    Senior
1985    Kim Crawford    San Luis Obispo    Senior
1984    Kim Crawford    San Luis Obispo    Junior
1983    Sherrie Atteberry    Atascadero    Senior
1982    Cathy Arias    Paso Robles    Senior
1981    Aleta Sandri    Atascadero    Senior

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