Originally published in March 2017
Winning a state championship is always special.
Running each of your opponents out of the gym on the way to the hardware is an even better feeling.
The Zillah High boys basketball team didn’t let any of its three SunDome opponents get within 10 points last week and rolled to the program’s first 1A championship since 2014.
“We lost a close one last year (to King’s) and it made us that much hungrier this year,” said Parker Sandlin, one of eight seniors on this year’s team, which finished 26-1.
“Coming back this year and winning it all feels even better now. It’s just amazing.”
Senior Nate Whitaker scored a game-high 25 points in Saturday’s 69-53 wire-to-wire defeat of top-seeded Freeman, which also finished second last year.
Senior Trey Delp scored 10, while underclassmen Brock Ellis and Antonio Salinas added nine apiece as Zillah jumped to an early 12-2 lead and never let Freeman get within seven the rest of the night.
“Defense is the big thing,” Whitaker said. “Defense and rebounding. They had some big guys, but so did the other teams. We knew they were just as good as us record-wise, but I think we had a good game plan.”
The No. 3-seeded Leopards — whose only loss of the year came to Class 2A Wapato — often employ full-court pressure throughout the game to force turnovers and create easy points.
It worked for them all season, and then helped them cruise to easy wins over Cascade Christian (81-54) and Lynden Christian (72-57) for a spot in Saturday’s title game.
As was evident in all three of the Leopards’ state tourney wins, Zillah seemed to have reached a higher plane this postseason.
“Last year didn’t go very well here and we didn’t want that to happen again,” said Whitaker, the game’s MVP. “It was a bad feeling to get knocked out like that, and we figured out how to play our best when it mattered.”
Like Zillah, the Scotties had lost just once all season and they had made plans to cut down the nets as well.
But Zillah’s quickness, shooting and the aforementioned lockdown defense proved to be too much in the end.
“We thought we could dominate them just like most of our other games,” Sandlin said. “We’ve been doing it all year. We knew it would be a battle, but that’s just how it turned out.”
Delp, who was named Player of the Tournament, shot just 4-of-10 in the title game, but he was an offensive force in the Leopards’ other two victories.
He dropped a game-high 26 points in the semifinal win over Lynden Christian and notched 25 in the win over Cascade Christian.
Fellow seniors Beau Widner, Jayson Burge, Ryan Slack, Jacob Tilley and Andres Ponce also contributed big things along the way.
“We’ve been playing together since, like, first grade,” Whitaker said. “It’s great for all of us to end with a win like this.”
For some of the Leopards, the best part about winning the state title is what it means for the basketball-rich town of Zillah.
The players feel like they didn’t just win for themselves or the program; they won for the entire community.
“We had so many fans come out to support us, and that’s such a great feeling,” Sandlin said. “Zillah loves basketball and I’m so glad we could win one for our town.”
“I love the support from each and every one of them,” Whitaker added.
Zillah will return just a handful of players next year, led by Salinas and Ellis, both sophomores.
Also returning next year for coach Mario Mengarelli will be sophomore Cesar Diaz and freshman Sebastian Godina.