Top-Hi girls basketball team expecting big things next year after strong finish

The Toppenish High girls basketball team reached a level of success it hadn’t seen in years this postseason, coming within one game of a Class 2A state regional game.

A 69-60 loss to Clarkston in last Saturday’s CWAC-GNL crossover game ended the Wildcats’ season. But a third-place league finish and wins over Grandview and Selah in the district playoffs showed that this is a program on the rise.

“We definitely raised the bar this year, and our expectations for next year are even higher,” said first-year head coach Brad Baker, who earned CWAC coach of the year honors for his work with a young Wildcats team that started just one senior.

“The girls coming back are hungry to get to the next level, and they want to get back to at least where we made it this year. They are looking forward to putting in the work this summer to make that happen.”

Prior to the playoffs, the Wildcats proved themselves down the stretch, taking undefeated and top-ranked Ellensburg down to the wire on Feb. 4 before falling 46-45. They then took down fifth-seed Grandview 59-44 in the CWAC tournament quarterfinals before falling to Ellensburg 71-52 in the semifinals.

That loss set up a loser-out contest against Selah on Feb. 18 in the SunDome, where few of the Wildcats had ever played. The girls came ready to play and edged the Vikings 60-57 to advance to a crossover seeding game against Prosser.

“My favorite moment of the whole postseason was watching the girls in the pre-game shootaround at the SunDome, just enjoying what they had accomplished,” Baker said. “They realized that they had earned the right to be there, and that was pretty special.”

A 63-33 loss to Prosser set up a road trip to Clarkston on Feb. 22. And while the ‘Cats were considered big underdogs, they came out an punched the Bantams in the mouth, taking a 14-4 lead after one quarter and maintaining their lead into the second half.

Sophomore Cloe Peters scored a game-high 27 points and her freshman sister, Bree, added 10, but a few bad breaks down the stretch ultimately ended Top-Hi’s run.

“I just asked the girls to give me all they’ve got,” said Baker, whose team finished 14-12 overall. “Clarkston is a good team and we definitely scared them. We weren’t supposed to win that game, but the girls gave 100 percent the whole time and almost pulled it off. They showed everyone that their success this season wasn’t a fluke.”

Baker thanked his three seniors — Kassandra Tellez (second team all-league), Fayedawn Fiander and Ariana Aguilera — for their leadership this season, and said the program is in excellent shape going forward.

The four starters returning next season will be Cloe Peters (second team all-league), Bree Peters (honorable mention all-league), sophomore guard Naveah Zuniga and junior post Nakota Whalawitsa. Junior Andrea Sandoval, sophomore Natalia Villanueva and freshmen Natalia Sanchez and Nakeisha Hill will provide depth.

Baker said everyone on the roster showed tremendous improvement this season, but no one more than Whalawitsa.

“Nakota has been very solid for us, and the improvement she’s made in the past year has been amazing,” he said. “She’ll be a senior next year, and she’ll have an even bigger role to play. But I think she and our other returning players will be ready.”