Buckhannon, West Virginia is indeed a long way from California. But for West Virginia Wesleyan senior basketball player Mari Stewart, a native of Templeton, California, the mountains of Central West Virginia has been the haven for an outstanding college career.
Stewart Enjoys Grand Bobcat Career
Nov 28, 2017
Stewart grew up in the central part of the Golden State, in the heart of the famed wine country. In many ways, she never really saw herself straying too far away from her rural home.
"When people think of California, they often think of Los Angeles, Hollywood, and the big city life," Stewart said. "Where I am from, it is very rural. My town is very small, and a lot of the neighboring towns are also very small."
Stewart's athletic prowess was truly multi-dimensional throughout her youth. She excelled in a variety of sports; she was a shortstop in softball, a standout midfielder in soccer, a sprinter and thrower in track, and of course basketball. But it was in some more non-conventional activities that she focused much of her time.
It was in the arena of dance and martial arts where Stewart was at her best. She was active competitively in each of these areas from the time she was four, until the age of 14.
"Our dance competitions were big productions, and we were able to travel to a lot of nice places...Anaheim, Las Vegas, and other places," Stewart said. "They were usually three days long. We would have classes and dance specific lectures and demonstrations in the mornings, then we would have a period of prep, where we would deal with makeup and getting our outfits ready. The dance competition itself would then be the main show."
Karate was the martial arts field of Stewart's expertise. Her size and athleticism allowed to advance at a strong pace in the field. By the age of 14, she had earned her Yellow Belt. At this point, an injury changed her athletic route.
"Because of my height, they often had me sparring with higher level competitors," Stewart said. "In one of my sessions, I was fighting with a Green Belt, and he caught my hand flush with a strong kick, and snapped my thumb. The fracture put me out of playing all sports for awhile."
From there, Stewart veered away from the karate and dance life, and concentrated her energies on helping her high school teams perform. By her senior year in 2013-14, she was a sought after recruit. Her recruiting process was a roller coaster adventure that had some twists and turns.
"I had my heart set on going D-I and was not really considering D-II. My first choice was back home at a California school, and I felt that was a done deal, but my scholarship offer was rescinded close to signing day," Stewart said. "My second choice was a school in Florida, but a coaching change and a change of direction in their program left me out of the picture there as well. I found myself still looking for a school, and wondering if I was going to have a college basketball career at all."
Stewart went back to her contacts, and started responding to some small school coaches that had been emailing her. One of these contacts was Coach Mike Bari at West Virginia Wesleyan. Soon, Bari had secured a visit date for his California recruit.
"When I came to visit, I fell in love with the school," Stewart said. "Schools don't look like this in California, and everyone seemed so welcoming. What I have liked about here is how nice everyone is. People here will motion you across the street, or give up the right away at stop signs...that just doesn't happen back home. Everybody is in much more of a hurry it seems on the West Coast."
Stewart made an immediate impact on the Wesleyan program. As a freshman she 17.0 points per game, and 7.6 rebounds per game. Her season included a 37-point outburst against West Liberty and a 30-point night against Wheeling Jesuit. Her season concluded with her being named the Mountain East Conference Freshman of the Year.
As a sophomore, she took her game to another level. She averaged a double-double at 19.6 points per game, and 10.0 rebounds per game. This included a 44-point game against Glenville. Her year concluded with earning First Team All-MEC.
In Stewart's junior year, she was putting up another strong season under new head coach Vicky Bullett. But another injury put the breaks on her season. A torn ACL in January left her facing a long stretch of rehabilitation to return. Before the injury, her season did have the highlights of seeing her top the 1000-point mark and the 500-rebound mark.
With the long road of recovery now behind her, Stewart is looking to close her career with a strong year for the Bobcats. The squad is currently 2-2, and already has a key win over league foe Wheeling Jesuit in the books.
"We have a good group that is working hard together," Stewart said. "This team has a lot of potential to accomplish some big things this season."
Majoring in Exercise Science and Communications, Stewart is planning to make a move to Graduate School next year. Her hope is to find a GA position and coach somewhere.
"My career goal is to coach basketball," Stewart said. "I love the game, and would really enjoy getting to give back."
For a California girl here in the mountains of West Virginia, Mari Stewart has definitely made her mark.