Toppenish girls basketball team likes chances down the stretch

Update: Toppenish beat Grandview 58-48 to improve to 9-5 in league and claim sole possession of fourth place heading into Friday’s game against Prosser.

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The young Toppenish High girls basketball team has been figuring out its identity over the past few weeks. As a result, the Wildcats find themselves battling for one of the top seeds in next month’s CWAC district tournament.

Top-Hi recently rolled off four straight league wins to surge into a fourth-place tie at 8-5 (9-6 overall). After first-place Ellensburg, the next five teams are separated by just one loss, meaning that with five games remaining, the ‘Cats could climb as high as second.

The Wildcats will be tested in their next two games, facing Grandview (8-5) on Saturday and Prosser (8-4) on Jan. 31. But the way they’ve played over the past few weeks, first-year coach Brad Baker believes anything is possible with this group.

“I believe we can get there, and the girls do, too,” said Baker, who starts just one senior, along with a junior, two sophomores and a freshman. “I don’t feel like there’s a game we can’t win, and that includes Ellensburg.”

The Wildcats’ four-game winning streak was snapped last Saturday against second-place East Valley, a team they beat by two points back on Dec. 14. Baker said the shots simply weren’t falling, and that was the difference in the end.

“If we even had an average shooting night, we could have won,” the coach said of the 52-44 defeat. “We were only down two with two minutes remaining, but the shots just weren’t falling.”

Despite that setback, Baker said his team has come a long way over the past month. One of the Wildcats’ losses the first time through league play was to Selah. Vikings freshman post Kylie Sherman was dominant that night, and the ‘Cats didn’t have an answer for her inside. But in the rematch on Jan. 17, Top-Hi was ready for the challenge and came away with a 64-51 win.

“Ever since the loss to Selah, we came together as a team and studied film to figure out how we were going to beat them the second time around,” Baker said, pointing to the defensive effort of junior post Nakota Whalawitsa. “All that extra time paid off because our game plan worked perfectly.”

Baker also applauded the leadership of senior forward Kassandra Tellez. She can score and rebound when her team needs her, but her strongest attribute is her defense. Baker recalled how she completely shut down Ephrata’s best player, Peyton Hagy, after she scored 21 points in the first half on Jan. 14.

“At halftime, I told Kassandra, ‘if we shut down Hagy, we win,’” Baker said. “And she held her to zero points the rest of the way.”

Baker also spoke of Tellez’s defensive effort against Karina Hibbitt, one of East Valley’s leading scorers. Tellez played smothering defense and held her to just three points.

“We always put Kassandra on the other team’s best player because she gets the job done every time,” Baker said. “She doesn’t jump out on the stat sheet, but she’s got to be one of our MVPs.”

Also earning the coach’s praise were fellow starters Cloe Peters, Bree Peters and Naveah Zuniga. Cloe Peters, a sophomore, has been one of the team’s most consistent shooters, while Bree Peters, a freshman point guard, has been running the offense and has begun to find her outside shot.

But Baker said Zuniga has been the player who has evolved the most this season, excelling in an important role for the Wildcats.

“I’ve been telling her that we need someone who can drive the ball down the middle, and she’s finally figuring it out,” Baker said of the sophomore guard, who tallied a season-high 28 points against Ephrata. “Whenever she gets into the key, good things happen. She either gets a layup, gets to the line or kicks it out for a three-pointer. I love what she’s been able to do for us.”

Other key players for the ‘Cats this season have been seniors Fayedawn Fiander and Ariana Aguilera, and junior Andrea Sandoval. Freshman Natalia Sanchez is also working her way into the rotation.

The Wildcats still have some growing to do, but if they keep playing the way they have in January, they will be in the hunt for a top seed at the district tournament.

“I think we’ve found our identity, and we’ve figured out which lineups work the best for us,” Baker said. “But the biggest thing is, the girls believe. If there’s one thing I know about this team is that we’re going to compete to the end. We don’t back down from anyone.”