Wildcats’ winter sports teams each raised the bar this season

As we’re all sitting around, cooped up due to the coronavirus outbreak, this is the perfect time to reflect on all of the success the Toppenish High School athletic programs enjoyed this winter.

We would much rather be gearing up for some Wildcat soccer or a Saturday afternoon doubleheader at the baseball diamond, but there’s not much anyone can do about the reality we’re currently facing. Based on what’s happened over the past two weeks, it’s looking like the entire spring sports season will be wiped out.

So instead of talking about the Top-Hi soccer team’s chances of returning to the state final four or the steady improvement of the Wildcats’ baseball and softball squads, or the growth of the track and field program, we’re going to look back at all that has happened over the past month. And it was a LOT!

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Let’s start with the Wildcat wrestling team, which claimed its fourth Class 2A state championship in the past five years behind six individual champions and 12 medal winners. Coach Johnny Cerna’s crew was so dominant that they left second-place Orting in the dust by nearly 70 points (247.5 to 179).

The ‘Cats were the top-ranked team at all classifications throughout the season, and they lived up to that billing in a big way at Mat Classic XXXII. Seniors Haiden Drury (132 pounds) and Kyler Romero (138) capped their impressive careers with their third individual state titles, while fellow senior Isaias Ramirez went from relative unknown to the top of the podium at 170 pounds.

Drury and Romero joined exclusive company in the process, becoming the program’s second and third three-time state champs (2019 grad Andres Aguilera is the other).

Sophomore Horacio Godinez rebounded from a late-season loss at regionals to claim his second individual title — this time at 113 pounds — and put himself on pace to become Top-Hi’s first four-time champion. His workout partner, sophomore Joel Godina, came back from last year’s runner-up finish to Godinez to win the 106-pound title over yet another Wildcat, freshman Miguel Torres.

Another super freshman Jeremiah “Miah” Zuniga won the team’s sixth individual crown at 120 pounds and, like Godinez, positioned himself to make a run at four titles in four years.

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).

Thanks to Cerna and his coaching staff, this school is fast-becoming a Northwest wrestling mecca. Adding to the program’s strength has been the growth of the Bad Boy Wrestling Club, led by Top-Hi assistant coach Pepe Segovia. They’re preparing kids as young as 5 years old to become the next Haiden Drury or Kyler Romero, which means we — and the rest of the state — should probably get used to seeing Top-Hi on top for many years to come.

But it wasn’t just a big year for wrestling. The Wildcat basketball teams also took some enormous strides. The boys won the CWAC league title, the district championship and two state tournament games to come home with a sixth-place trophy — the program’s first state hardware since 1992. The girls, meanwhile, tied for third place in league play, reached the district tournament semifinals and narrowly missed out on a trip to state.

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First-year head coach Brad Baker got the most out of his talented group of youngsters, guiding the program further than it has been in years (sorry, I don’t know exactly how many years). The ‘Cats — who started a freshman, two sophomores, a junior and a senior — ended up winning a pair of district tournament games against Grandview and Selah before bowing out against 2A heavyweight Clarkston in a Great Northern League crossover.

Baker said he’ll miss seniors Kassandra Tellez, Ariana Aguilera and Fayedawn Fiander, but he’s looking forward to seeing what this roster can do next year when Toppenish moves down to Class 1A due to a statewide reclassification.

Freshman point guard Bree Peters and her sophomore sister, Cloe, will be counted on to provide most of the scoring, while sophomore Naveah Zuniga also has shown a knack for getting to the rack and sinking some outside shots. Junior Nakota Whalawitsa — the tallest player on the roster at 5-foot-9 — developed into a strong post option this season and will be counted on for veteran leadership next year.

I keep hearing there’s a lot more talent on the way in the middle school ranks, too, so this is definitely a program on the rise.

Speaking of programs that are going places, the Wildcat boys established themselves as one of the elite teams in Class 2A this season, rolling to a 17-1 league record and finishing 23-4 overall. Two of those losses came to teams at the top of the heap — eventual 2A champion Clarkston and two-time defending state champ Lynden — so when you look at the body of work, this was one of the program’s best seasons ever.

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Led by seniors Isaac Perez, Manuel Felan and Mathew Ramirez, the ‘Cats played with a never-say-die chip on their shoulder that carried them further than any Top-Hi team in nearly three decades. They always seemed to find a way to win, whether it was coming back from 16 down in the second half to beat Ephrata in overtime, knocking down a buzzer beater to knock off Zillah, or a double-overtime victory over Selah in the CWAC title game.

Despite having only one 6-footer on the roster (sophomore all-league post Jason Grant), the Wildcats always figured out a way to get the job done. And even though they absorbed three losses down the stretch, they proved to be one of the most exciting teams in the Yakima Valley all season.

Looking ahead to next year, head coach JoJo Mesplie will bring back a talented group of underclassmen, including his son, Riley. Also expected to return are Adam Myers, Freddy Robledo, Mario Larios, Joshua Perez and Grant, so the future appears bright.

The same can be said for all of the Top-Hi athletic programs these days. But, unfortunately, we’ll have a wait at least a few months to cheer for the ‘Cats again. I don’t know about you, but I was really looking forward to spending some time at the fields this spring.

Looks like all of the winter season highlights will have to carry us through for a while.