Another year, another state championship.
As expected, the top-ranked Toppenish High wrestling program put the cherry on top of another banner season last weekend at the Tacoma Dome, winning its second Class 2A team championship in a row and fourth in the past five years.
Three-time champions Haiden Drury (132 pounds) and Kyler Romero (138) were among six individual title winners for the Wildcats, who also saw sophomore Horacio Godinez (113) return to the top of the podium at Mat Classic XXXII.
Senior Isaias Ramirez (170), sophomore Joel Godina (106) and freshman Miah Zuniga (120) also claimed individual crowns, leading a crop of 12 medalists for the Wildcats. All but one of Top-Hi’s place-winners won his final match, and that lone defeat occurred because freshman Miguel Torres had to face his teammate, Godina, in the 106-pound finals.
Toppenish also earned a pair of third-place finishes from Emerique Gonzales (126) and Juan Escamilla (152), a fifth place from Terrell Underwood (285), and seventh places from Josiah Johnson (113) and Rocco Clark (195) on their way to 247.5 team points — well in front of second place Orting at 179 points. White River (96) was third, followed by CWAC rivals Selah (85.5) and Othello (69).
“Every state title is different, but this one was pretty special because of my illness over the summer,” Wildcats head coach Johnny Cerna said. “Honestly, I didn’t know if I’d be well enough to coach this year. But over time, I started healing and doing more day-to-day things. Coming back to coaching was a huge motivator for me, and thanks to the support of my family, my assistants, my wrestlers and others in the community, I was able to push through.”
Cerna suffered a life-threatening illness last June that left him in the hospital for most of the summer. What started out as pneumonia developed into a viral infection that landed him in a month-long coma. Doctors feared he may not be able to walk again, but over time, he’s been regaining his strength.
Following months of rehabilitation and tireless support from the Toppenish community, Cerna was able to attend most of the Wildcats’ meets and practices. His perseverance and the team’s success helped him earn 2A Coach of the Year honors, but he knows he couldn’t have done it alone.
“I wish my coaches could have won the award, too, because they were so supportive this season,” said Cerna, who surpassed his father John Cerna Sr.’s mark of three state championships (1991, ‘93 and ’98). “They did whatever I needed them to and covered for me whenever I needed them to. I’m very grateful for everything they have done.”
The assistant coaches for the boys program are Pepe Segovia, Manuel Arambul, Austin Kintner and Cesar Godinez. They were joined this season by volunteers Keyano Zamarripa and Andy Aguilera.
Cerna also credited the work of girls head coach Jennifer Gonzalez, assistant coach Jose Barrera and volunteers Jefferson Stancliffe and Joey Escobar. In the girls Mat Classic competition, sophomore Isabella Morales won the 105-pound title and teammate Ruby Rios took third at 125, helping the Wildcats finish 12th in the team standings.
“All of our coaches and volunteers have really stepped it up,” Cerna said. “We have so many great people involved with our program that it’s hard to name them all.”
Great coaching aside, the wrestlers know they have to perform in big moments. Once you’re on the mat, it’s just you and your opponent. And, just as they have done all season — for the past five seasons, really — the entire Wildcats team responded to the challenge.
“We wrestle in a lot of elite tournaments to get us ready for these moments,” Cerna said. “We’ve competed against the best wrestlers in the state all season and we’ve traveled to California and Oregon to face nationally ranked teams. Competing at that level gives our guys confidence so that when we get to the Dome, it doesn’t feel like that big of a deal.”
At the same time, Cerna knows winning Mat Classic year after year is no small accomplishment. The amount of work his wrestlers must put in year round to achieve such a high level isn’t lost on the coaching staff.
“These kids put in a ton of time, and their parents put out a lot of time and money to make them successful,” Cerna said. “When you see that, you feel a great responsibility to help them reach the next level if they choose to. But, to us, it’s not just about wrestling. We’re also teaching these kids life skills so they can give back to their communities someday. We take a lot of pride in that, just as much as we do in winning state titles.”
Taking stock at state
Two competitors who will be greatly missed are Drury and Romero, longtime friends and workout partners who each took second place as freshmen before rolling off three consecutive state championships.
Drury, who scored an 8-2 decision over Ellensburg’s Francisco Ayala in the 132-pound finals, has developed into such an elite talent that he won a national Freestyle title last summer in Fargo, N.D. He was rewarded by being offered a wrestling scholarship to attend Fresno State University in the fall.
“Haiden is all business and he really sets the tone in our wrestling room,” Cerna said. “His work ethic sets him apart, but he also does all the little things. He’s very respectful, very coachable and is just an all-around great person. We’re going to miss his presence, for sure.”
Romero is undecided about his future, but Cerna said he’s been talking to some colleges about competing at the next level. He earned even more respect at Mat Classic for how he finished off his third state title, taking down top-ranked Thor Michaelson of Bremerton with eight seconds remaining to secure a 3-2 victory in the 138-pound final.
“That’s the first time Kyler has beaten that kid, and he did it in a huge moment,” Cerna said. “He saw one window of opportunity and was able to take advantage of it and finish the job. That was one of the more exciting matches of the tournament.”
Another battle that stood out for Cerna was Zuniga’s 120-pound final against Christian Davis of Ellensburg. Trailing 2-0, Zuniga was able to force overtime before earning a takedown for a 4-2 win. Zuniga also came back from an 8-1 deficit in the semifinals to win 12-9.
“I love Miah’s composure,” Cerna said. “He’s never out of the match. Now, I am looking forward to watching him chase four championships, along with Lacho (Horacio Godinez).”
The biggest surprise of the tournament came from Isaias Ramirez, a senior who qualified for state last year but has been battling injuries since football season. As the season went along, though, Ramirez developed into a force on the mat, beating all of the top-ranked wrestlers in the state before proving his worth at Mat Classic. He topped off an improbable postseason run with a 5-2 win over Prosser’s Logan Candanoza in the finals.
“Isaias kind of surprised everyone because he flew under the radar,” Cerna said. “We knew he had the potential to break out, and he was able to get healthy at the right time.”
Not to be forgotten, Godina and Torres have been going at it all year, and wound up opposite one another in the 106-pound state finals. Godina — last year’s runner-up to Godinez at 106 — has been dominant all season, but Torres is closing the gap.
“We always tell the guys that their best competition may be right here in our wrestling room,” Cerna said. “And this is the second year in a row that we’ve had two finalists at 106. You just have to keep working harder because someone is always trying to catch you. I think that’s what makes our wrestling room so strong. Our guys are always pushing each other.”