Winning a district championship has been a long time coming for the Toppenish High boys basketball program.
It’s been so many years since the Wildcats won a district title that most of the players’ parents were still in high school or even younger. Just for perspective, Tim Garza — the head coach of the Wildcats’ opponent, Selah — played on that team back in 1985.
That’s why being able to write their own bit of history is so special for this group of Wildcats. Led by senior Isaac Perez’s 30 points and four others in double figures, Toppenish scratched and clawed its way to an 85-77 double-overtime win over Selah in last Saturday’s CWAC championship game at the SunDome.
“After playing in so many close games this season, we feel like we’re ready for anyone,” said senior Mathew Ramirez, who pitched in 15 points. “Mostly, we just know how to work together as a team. Everyone plays hard and we just go out and play basketball.”
Senior Manuel Felan and sophomore Riley Mesplie each contributed 13 points, while freshman Josh Perez had 11 points and a team-high eight rebounds. Sophomore Freddy Robledo also played a key role inside after all-league post Jason Grant fouled out in the fourth quarter.
“It was huge to see our bench show up like that,” said Isaac Perez, who played with four fouls for most of the fourth quarter and both overtimes. “Freddy really stepped it up when Jason fouled out. Noah Pepper is a really great player and he’s tough to stop. But toward the end, we did what we had to do against him to get the win.”
Pepper, the two-time CWAC MVP, put up 39 points and 16 rebounds to almost single-handedly keep Selah in the game. But in the end, Toppenish’s defense proved to be the difference. The ‘Cats forced 22 Selah turnovers and recorded 12 steals.
“Defensive stops and transition buckets are what it came down to,” said Felan, who made two key layups during an 18-10 run in the second overtime. “We just had to keep playing hard and believing in ourselves.”
That perseverance has been a common theme all season for the Wildcats, who are 21-1 heading into Saturday’s Class 2A state regional game against No. 7 Clarkston, scheduled for 6 p.m. at Eisenhower High School in Yakima.
Win or lose, the No. 2 seed Wildcats will be playing in the SunDome March 4-7. If they beat Clarkston, they will advance to Thursday’s quarterfinals. A loss would put them in a loser-out game on Wednesday against the winner of Clover Park and Prosser, the only team to defeat the Wildcats all season.
Top-Hi coach Jo Jo Mesplie said his team’s performance against Selah showed him that they are ready for what lies ahead.
“Our kids have been resilient all year long, and all those close games we’ve been in really showed up tonight,” he said. “Everyone did their part, and we deserved to win.”
Mesplie said the victory over Selah allowed his team to cross off the second of three goals for this season: Winning a league title, winning a district championship and winning a state trophy.
“Every team that gets to state has intentions of winning it, so we’re no different than anyone else,” he said. “But most of all, we just want to be playing on Saturday at the SunDome because that means we know we’ll be bringing home some hardware. I would definitely love to see these kids playing in the last game, and if the opportunity is there, they will have earned it.”
One indisputable fact about this group of Wildcats is that they never give up. They’ve trailed late in games and have found a way to win. They’ve had tough shooting nights but always find the net when it counts. But no matter what, the ‘Cats can always count on their speed and athleticism.
“We don’t want to change anything up now because that’s what has gotten us here,” said Isaac Perez, who joined Grant and Ramirez on the all-CWAC first team. “We’ll look at the game film and see where we can improve, but we just want to go out there and do our thing.”
The significance of Top-Hi’s first district championship in 35 years isn’t lost on the players. The seniors have been playing together since they were in elementary school, and they’ve always had a goal of bringing home a trophy for their school and their community.
“This means a lot for us,” Felan said. “Especially since the wrestling team has had so much success lately. We congratulate them, of course, but basketball has always been the sport in our town. Our fans love to see us succeed.”
Mesplie and assistant coach Jay Sanchez said the outpouring of support from the community — and Top-Hi alumni living outside the area — has made this season all the more memorable for everyone involved.
“Our community has been so supportive — not just this year, but for as long as I’ve been here,” said Mesplie, now in his 12th season. “We’ve got a strong alumni fan base that’s been keeping tabs on these boys on social media. That has made this year a lot of fun.”
But the ‘Cats are far from done. They hope to keep the good times rolling at state and return home with some hardware — maybe even a first-place trophy.
“We really believe we’re going to be there in the end,” Ramirez said. “We just have to stay hungry and stay humble and we’ll reach our final goal.”
“We don’t want to be one of the teams that bows out in the first round or the semifinals,” Perez added. “We want to be the team that wins a state championship. We want to show the people of Toppenish that basketball is back.”