Winter sports season off to an exciting start over first month

The winter sports season is off and running in the Yakima Valley, with dozens of basketball and wrestling teams looking to establish their identities before the postseason push begins in a few weeks.

When the season kicked off a month ago, there were a few things we could count on:

  • Last year’s CWAC Player of the Year Noah Pepper was going to be the best player on the floor every time his Selah Vikings took the court;
  • The defending 1A state champion Zillah boys basketball team was going to remain at the top of its game despite graduating some key pieces;
  • The defending 2A state champion Toppenish High wrestling team was going to dominate … again. We also expected the Granger, Selah and Zillah wrestling teams to be formidable.

Most people figured the defending 1A state champion La Salle girls basketball team — which didn’t lose a game all of last season — would continue to roll even after graduation took a toll on the starting five. Through Dec. 28, the Lightning already have dropped three games. But with standouts like Trista Hull, Natalie Newman and Gillian Martin, La Salle has notched some big wins over King’s, Wapato and Sunnyside Christian.

There were a number of seemingly easy predictions going into the season, but there also were some things we didn’t expect.

The Toppenish High boys basketball team has surprised everyone but themselves during a 7-0 start, which included wins over each of the other top CWAC teams from Selah, Grandview, Ephrata and Prosser. The Wildcats only have one player over 6-foot but have used their speed, tenacity and senior leadership to place themselves atop the early-season standings. Isaac Perez, Mathew Ramirez and Manuel Felan have provided the spark, but all 10 players on the roster are contributing.

The Selah boys, meanwhile, graduated three-fifths of their starting lineup from last year’s state runner-up squad, but have managed to start 6-3 overall, with two of those losses coming to Toppenish and Zillah. Pepper has been a force in the early going, getting offensive help from John Zambito and Cooper Quigley.

Over in the SCAC West, the aforementioned Leopards have shown that they haven’t lost a step, bringing in all-state transfer Mason Landdeck to partner with returning starters Sebastian Godina, Weston Ide and Clay Delp. With comfortable wins over Selah, La Center and Seattle Academy, the 7-0 Leps already are looking like the team to beat in 1A.

La Salle, with transfer Malachy Caffrey and returning starters Kieran Kershaw and Sahil Randhawa, could present a test, but my money is on Zillah once again. Naches Valley also has shown improvement and is off to a 6-2 start, with one of those losses coming to Zillah and the other to Class 2A East Valley (which is also playing well at 5-3).

On the girls side of the SCAC West, don’t sleep on the Zillah girls. Sophomore Brynn Widner has been a force in the early season, leading the Leopards to a 5-2 start that included wins over Selah, White River and Davis (which is 4A, by the way). They’re looking like the team that will most likely test La Salle for the SCAC West title, with Granger, Naches, Highland and Cle Elum jockeying for the remaining playoff spots.

In 4A boys basketball, West Valley is riding a five-game winning streak heading into the new year. Returning starters Logan Kinloch, Trey Funk and Conner Turner have been leading the way for the Rams, who stand at 8-2 and 3-0 in league. Davis has started at 4-4 and is led by seniors Earl Lee and Marcus Cook, and junior Jose Reyes.

The best local girls team in the CBBN thus far has been West Valley at 4-5 overall (2-1 league), who have won four straight overall after a difficult preseason schedule. The Rams are led by senior Ariel Winslow and junior Gillian Landis, with Shannon Curtis and Lily Fetzer providing additional senior leadership.

Not to be forgotten, the CWAC girls basketball season has started out with Ellensburg at the top and everyone else chasing. East Valley, Wapato, Prosser and Selah are tied for third place at 4-2 in league play, with Toppenish close behind at 3-3.

East Valley (6-2 overall), with no seniors on the roster, has been paced by junior Ashlynn Sylve, who returned from injury after a strong freshman season for the Red Devils. Wapato (5-3 overall) has been led by junior Nyah Alvarado and seniors Ashley Estrada and Alexis Garza, posting a league win over Prosser and a nonleague win over Zillah.

Selah (4-4 overall) has undergone a number of changes this season but has remained steady behind the play of freshman post Kylie Sherman and senior forward Ashlynn Hall. Sophomore Jayden Horton has also been scoring consistently for the Viks, who have dropped three in a row.

Toppenish (4-3 overall) earned a big win over East Valley but has lost its past two CWAC contests. The Wildcats have been relying on the shooting of sophomore Cloe Peters, plus the point guard play of her sister, freshman Bree Peters. Senior Kassandra Tellez has also provided a consistent presence on both ends of the floor for first-year coach Brad Baker.

There have been a number of wrestling highlights early in the season, too — Toppenish winning the White River Classic, for example — but we’ll tackle those next time. Keep checking back for regular updates on the Valley’s winter sports teams. We’re hoping to have something posted on every program by next week.