— The story of this season’s West Hills High basketball team began nearly a decade ago when the girls started playing together in the fourth grade.

“We were horrible,” said Mariah Bennett, one of five returning seniors. “I mean we’d lose by 50 points. We loved the game, but we were uncoordinated and everything about the game was all new. It was a struggle for all of us.”

A lot of girls quit, but just as many held on and continued to improve. By the time the survivors reached the sixth grade, the girls were starting to win games.

“The big thing is our coaches stuck by us,” Bennett said. “Once we reached the eighth grade we were killing all the other teams. I guess we were becoming a powerful team.”

And so they have.

The Wolf Pack captured Grossmont North League championships the past two seasons and won the San Diego Section Division II crown a year ago when Sherika Miller hit a buzzer-beater to give West Hills a 46-44 upset of Mount Miguel.

“I didn’t even know how much time was left on the clock or anything,” said Miller, a senior who will attend San Francisco State. “I just started, drove in and shot it – and we won it!”

Even though West Hills is moving into the newly aligned Grossmont Hills League – which includes Granite Hills, Grossmont, Helix, Steele Canyon and Valhalla – the Wolf Pack players are not intimidated.

“We are just regular girls who love to play,” Bennett said. “We’re still humble. We never take anything for granted, but we expect to repeat. That’s our goal.”

Senior point guard Marilyn Naderhoff, who has averaged close to 10 points, five assists and 2.5 steals per game in three varsity seasons, is the Wolf Pack ringleader.

“I guess a lot of people expect us to win, but like last year, it’s going to be a long journey and we’re going to have to work as hard as we can to get there,” Naderhoff said. “We know it’s not going to just come to us.”

West Hills is No. 5 in preseason rankings behind perennial powers La Jolla Country Day, Mount Miguel, Poway and Bishop’s.

Naderhoff, who has a scholarship to Cal State Bakersfield, said she doesn’t look at the polls.

“I wouldn’t say that’s pressure,” Naderhoff said. “I think it just makes us want to work harder to defend our titles. It’s motivation for us. We know it’s going to be a tough year because our schedule is much tougher than it was last year.”

West Hills coach Ryan Kinser wasn’t surprised his team won a section championship a year ago, but he stops short of predicting a repeat performance.

Senior Kimberly Clark said the Wolf Pack won’t be able to sneak up on anyone.

“For the most part, our five seniors have a lot of experience,” said Clark, East County’s premier three-point shooter with 150 long-range buckets during her three-year varsity career. “Obviously that gives us a lot of strength, but definitely people are coming after us. We’re kind of a target this year, but playing better teams will make us a better team.”

Clark also ranks among the East County’s best free-throw shooters, hitting 79 percent as a junior. More than statistics, Clark said she relishes her friendships with teammates – on and off the court.

“All of them are my best friends,” Clark said free instagram viewer of the senior group that also includes Danielle Hays. “To play together with them should make for a great year.”

Clark, who has committed to Western New Mexico State, said the girls socialize beyond basketball at Christmas parties, beach parties and other bonding activities.

“We all love each other,” Clark said.

Despite West Hills’ experience, there is one concern.

“People don’t realize that we lost a lot of our bigs,” Naderhoff said. “So in terms of experience we’re kind of guard-heavy. Our focus right now is on rebounding.”

Much of that will fall on the shoulders of the 5-foot-11 Miller and the 5-9 Hays. Miller has averaged 12 points and six rebounds a game the past two seasons. She’s also blocked close to 50 shots.

Playing with the same teammates for so long has created many advantages. Whether it’s eye contact or head fakes, Miller knows which way to go when Naderhoff is directing the offense.

“Even though I love our half-court game I think we’re going to try to push the ball more,” Miller said. “We know how each other plays and know what our tendencies are. We know when to expect the ball, and that’s the difference between being a championship team and just another team.”