Heading into the Class 1A state championship game on March 2, the Zillah High boys basketball team was still looking to put together a complete performance at the SunDome.
The No. 3-seeded Leopards were tested by Bellevue Christian and La Center the first two days, so it was just a matter of time before the senior-dominated group started to light things up.
Which is exactly what happened against King’s Way Christian.
Led by five players in double figures, the Leopards raced past the Knights in the second half for a comfortable 90-68 victory and the program’s second title in three years.
Senior guard Cesar Diaz led the way with 25 points on 11-of-15 shooting, and junior post Sebastian Godina finished with 18 points and nine rebounds as Zillah shot 57 percent from the floor (55 percent from 3-point range).
“It was a little frustrating for us the first two days because the ball just wouldn’t go in,” said senior Antonio Salinas, who added 17 points, six rebounds and six assists. “But it was nice to see our shots start to fall when it mattered the most.”
Senior Brock Ellis added 14 points in his second state championship game — he and Salinas also played key roles on the 2017 squad — while freshman Claysen Delp tallied 10 points to go with four rebounds and three assists.
Seniors Cody Vance, Kaden Magana, Dakota Hibbs and Parker Van De Graaf also contributed to the victory, along with underclassmen Weston Ide, Ben Kibbe and Wesley Avila.
“We had a lot of bench players step up for us this year — and that’s an understatement,” Salinas said. “There aren’t many teams where every single player can come in and have a big night. We’re kind of unique because we can all get it done.”
Head coach Mario Mengarelli knows he has been blessed with a wealth of depth and talent since he took over the program in 2016. But there really was something special about this group.
“What it came down to for every one of these guys is that they wanted to win. Period,” Mengarelli said. “I’m very proud of them for staying together all season like they did.”
He added that while some of his players didn’t get to see as many minutes at state as they did during the regular season, they stayed committed to the mission of winning a state title.
“When you get everyone working toward a common goal, all the individual stuff just goes away,” the coach said.
Mengarelli know losing team leaders like Diaz, Salinas and Ellis won’t be easy, but he can’t say enough about what his seniors did during their time together.
“To see these seven seniors go out on top means everything to me,” he said. “It’s more than just a game to us — we are going to be lifelong friends. I’m truly going to miss them.”
Salinas said that while it’s always difficult to pass the torch, he is left with only good memories from his three years starting for the Leopards.
“It was amazing to play with that group during my sophomore year, but to go out on top as a senior is hard to describe,” he said, referring to the 2016-17 team that featured Trey Delp, Nate Whitaker, Beau Widner and Parker Sandlin.
“For most players, it’s unheard of to win one championship, but to win two really helps solidify our legacy here.”
And while winning district and state titles is always the goal for the program, this particular group came together like nothing Salinas had seen before.
“Everyone likes to describe their teammates as family, but honestly, we’re closer than that,” he said. “It’s hard to explain this group. We’re all super competitive, but we also connect really well with each other. It’s always about the team. That’s just how we do it here.”
As for playing at the next level, Salinas knows he’ll be suiting up somewhere next season. He’s been talking to a number of four-year colleges and is building relationships with some coaching staffs, but he hasn’t made any decisions.
“Ultimately, it will come down to what’s best for me and my family,” Salinas said. “I’m just excited to get an education and continue playing.”