Sixth-place Wildcats walk away from state with heads held high

Not everyone gets a trophy at the state basketball tournament.

And while the Toppenish High boys came up short of winning the ultimate prize, the Wildcats still emerged from the SunDome as one of the top teams in Class 2A, earning a sixth-place trophy — the program’s best finish since 1992.

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“I think we made our presence felt and we showed the rest of the state that Toppenish basketball is back,” said senior Isaac Perez, a first-team all-tournament selection who led the ‘Cats to wins over Prosser and White River. “We were hoping to end the season with a win in the fourth/sixth-place game, so we were a little disappointed at first. But looking back on what we accomplished this year, we are really proud.”

The district champion and No. 2 seed Wildcats lost their state regional matchup to eventual 2A runner-up Clarkston, 53-49, on Feb. 29, but rebounded March 4 to win a loser-out game against league rival Prosser, 64-60, on the first day at the Dome.

Their quarterfinal matchup against two-time defending state champion Lynden proved to be a heavy lift (a 73-55 loss), but Perez and fellow seniors Mathew Ramirez and Manuel “Peanut” Felan regrouped to carry Top-Hi past White River, 71-57, in another loser-out contest on March 6.

All three seniors scored 15 points in the win, which guaranteed the Wildcats their first state trophy in nearly 30 years (they finished seventh in 2009).

“We really showed up to play, especially in the loser-out games,” Perez said. “Mathew and Peanut stepped up big against White River, and they were a huge reason why we won that game. None of us wanted to end our careers knowing we could have won a trophy, so we just kept attacking the zone and didn’t settle for outside shots.”

The Wildcats ended up falling to Black Hills, 63-58, in the fourth/sixth-place game to finish the season at 23-4 overall. But even in defeat, the ‘Cats never got away from the style that propelled them to a 17-1 run through the CWAC, on the way to the program’s first district championship since 1985.

“We just kept pressuring (the other teams) non-stop on defense and pushing the pace like we did all season,” Perez said. “We always play with a killer mentality, but when our backs are against the wall, like they were against Prosser and White River, we get even more amped up.”

While the seniors would have preferred to finish the season with a win, reaching Saturday’s trophy round was a huge weight off their shoulders. Perez, Felan, Ramirez and Nick Garza will forever be linked to the resurgence of Wildcat basketball.

“This senior class set a new standard, and we helped show the younger guys what it’s gonna take,” said Perez, who became the program’s all-time leading scorer with 1,304 career points, surpassing his older brother, Isiah, who scored 1,285 points from 2015-18. “It’s not good enough to just get to state. You have to be playing on Saturday.”

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Head coach JoJo Mesplie, who was unavailable for comment, will return two sophomore starters in Jason Grant (all-CWAC first team) and Riley Mesplie. Freshman sixth man Joshua Perez — Isaac’s younger brother — will likely slide into the starting lineup, along with sophomore Freddy Robledo. Sophomores Adam Myers and Mario Larios are also expected back as the Wildcats drop down to Class 1A.

Isaac Perez said he likes his teammates’ chances.

“Some of our younger guys are going to have bigger roles next year, but I think they can keep it going,” he said. “Jason is going to be huge, and he’s ready to lead.”

Perez added that he would like to continue playing basketball in college, although he hasn’t made any decisions. For now, he’s just going to revel in what he and his teammates accomplished this season.

“For me, it was really emotional walking off the court for the last time,” he said. “All the work we put in since we were 3 years old finally paid off, and I’m so glad we were able to make our community proud. Even though we lost our last game, it was just an incredible season. I’m so proud of everyone — coaches, teammates, managers and fans — who made it happen.”