Deer Isle-Stonington’s Rylee Eaton spots up to shoot during practice Jan. 5 in Deer Isle. Through nine games, the nine-win Mariners are ranked first in Class D North. ELLSWORTH AMERICAN PHOTO BY MIKE MANDELL

A winning formula: Deer Isle-Stonington girls turning heads in Class D North

DEER ISLE — Lily Gray, Katie Hutchinson and Rylee Eaton have been playing basketball together for a long time. How long, exactly, is a bit harder to pinpoint.

As Gray, Eaton and Hutchinson prepared to leave the gym after the Deer Isle-Stonington girls’ basketball team concluded practice Friday evening, the three stopped to reflect on their time together as teammates. Years had passed since they first joined one another at the peewee level, and their memories of the first time varied.

Fourth grade, Hutchinson insisted, was when she joined the other two in playing together alongside some of the players on the current Deer Isle-Stonington varsity team. Eaton, a freshman and the youngest of the three, said it began when the other two were in sixth grade. Finally, Gray reached what seemed to be the right answer.

“I’d say we’ve probably been with each other since I was in second grade,” the junior said. “Now we’re all in high school together. It all seems so crazy.”

Although the moment this current group of Deer Isle-Stonington players came together may be in doubt, the team’s cohesiveness and collective skill are not. With the 2017-18 season more than halfway gone, the Mariners hold the No. 1 spot in the Class D North standings.

Members of the Deer Isle-Stonington girls’ basketball team pose for a team photo Dec. 4 in Deer Isle. The Mariners have the state’s best record at 9-0 and are seeking their first state championship since 1987. FILE PHOTO

No team in the entire state has more wins than the 9-0 Mariners, who have surprised even themselves with their early-season success. So far, Deer Isle-Stonington has posted wins over George Stevens Academy, Searsport, Machias, Bucksport and Greenville as well as regular-season sweeps of Jonesport-Beals and Sumner.

“I knew we’d have a better season than we’ve had in the past, but I didn’t think it would be this good,” Hutchinson said. “Nobody — not even us — expected to be here at this point.”

Even if the Mariners have done better than expected, their perfect start didn’t come out of nowhere. The team previously made the Class D North quarterfinals in 2016 and 2017 before losing to Shead and Easton, respectively.

In those seasons, Deer Isle-Stonington’s teams were somewhat lacking in experience at the varsity level. Most of the team’s current contributors were freshmen and sophomores on those squads, and younger players such as Eaton, who was still in middle school, had yet to play varsity basketball.

“In past years, we’ve had to sneak into the playoffs,” Gray said. “Now that we’re a year older, we want to get back there and show everyone we can win. It’s a different feeling this time.”

Although Gray and Eaton have provided Deer Isle-Stonington with plenty of scoring — the former combined for 40 points in the team’s wins over Bucksport and Jonesport-Beals last month — defense has been the team’s calling card. Aside from a 46-41 win over George Stevens Academy in their Dec. 8 opener, the Mariners have held each of their opponents below the 40-point mark.

Orly Vaughn attempts a layup during practice Jan. 5 in Deer Isle. At 6 feet, Vaughn, the only senior on Deer Isle-Stonington’s team this season, is one of the area’s tallest female players. ELLSWORTH AMERICAN PHOTO BY MIKE MANDELL

“On defense, it’s a mindset of just not letting them get to the basket,” Eaton said. “We have a lot of height and can guard well, and that can keep us out of those high-scoring games that are much closer.”

The team’s size in particular has made scoring in the post difficult for opponents. With Hutchinson, Orly Vaughn and Sadie Rice all 5-foot-10 or taller, few teams have been able to match the Mariners on the boards.

“To have multiple players who are nearly 6 feet tall, that’s an advantage not a lot of teams have,” coach Randy Shepard said. “You can make a player better at basketball, but you can’t make her taller.”

With the exception of Bangor Christian, Deer Isle-Stonington had defeated each of its opponents earlier this season entering Wednesday. The Mariners are tentatively scheduled to face Bangor Christian (2-6) on the road at 6 p.m. tomorrow, Jan. 10.

An undefeated regular season, Gray, Eaton and Hutchinson agreed, would mark an outstanding achievement for a Deer Isle-Stonington team that’s built for the long haul. With everybody but Vaughn set to return next season, the Mariners’ best basketball could still be ahead of them.

Even if that particular milestone isn’t in the cards, the Mariners will continue to savor every moment along the way. Should their current run continue, they’ll be making many more of those moments at the state tournament in February.

“We have a chance to do something special, and we’re going to enjoy it and keep working hard and getting better,” Gray said. “We’ve been underdogs the entire way, and we’ve been through a lot together over the years. We’re excited to see what we have left.”

Mike Mandell

Mike Mandell

Mike Mandell is the sports editor at The Ellsworth American and Mount Desert Islander. He began working for The American in August 2016. You can reach him via email at [email protected]