Building up the Toppenish High School baseball program is something that is close to Jaime Cortes’ heart.

The first-year Wildcats skipper played for the program back in the mid-1990s and he has been coaching local baseball talent for the past several years at the middle school and with the junior varsity team.

Now, Cortes is the man at the top, and he has done everything he can over the past year to create renewed excitement about the program. 

“We’ve been going since last May, with kids playing in the summer and fall for the first time in many years,” said Cortes, who played for Yakima Valley Community College (now Yakima Valley College). He also served as an assistant coach with the Yakima Valley Pippins in 2016.

“Our goal is to keep the guys engaged as much as we can,” he added. “We’re trying to get them as many repetitions as possible so we can be more competitive in a tough league like the CWAC.”

The ‘Cats won just two games last season under former head coach Casey Sorensen, defeating Ephrata and Wapato. Sorensen had announced prior to the end of the season that he would be moving away, so Cortes started building his program right away.

“Another thing we’ve done more of is getting our name out in the community,” he said. “We’ve been talking to businesses and working with groups like the Lions Club. We’ve been selling banners to put up around town. Basically, anything we can do to get people excited about Toppenish baseball again.”

Cortes and his coaching staff — with help from many others in the community — have also been working on improving the school’s baseball facilities, adding turf to the batting cages, upgrading the dugouts and resurfacing the pitching mound and home plate area with clay bricks.

“We just want to make it nicer, like the fields they have in Selah, East Valley and other schools in our league,” Cortes said. “We want our facilities to be more player-friendly than they have been.”

The facilities upgrades took place this winter after the program hosted a sports turf management seminar featuring former Top-Hi and Yakima Bears standout Mike Boekholder.

He has been working as the head groundskeeper for the Philadelphia Phillies since 2003 and agreed to share his expertise with baseball and softball officials from around the state.

“He brought in some of his colleagues and they showed us everything we wanted to know about turf, sod, fertilizer and more,” Cortes said. “We learned a lot of things that will help us make our field one of the best in the CWAC.”

With regard to this year’s Wildcats roster, Cortes said he is cautiously optimistic. A group of about 15 players played last summer and fall, gaining valuable preseason experience.

This year’s core will be made up of senior Andy Aguilera (SS, 3B, pitcher); juniors Manuel Felan (OF), Isaac Perez (OF) and Matthew Ramirez (IF, pitcher); and freshmen Joel Godina (IF, pitcher) and Jason Grant (catcher, pitcher, utility).

Pitchers Noe Garcia, Freddy Robledo and Javier Gonzalez also figure to see significant field time as the Wildcats prep for a tough league schedule that features Selah, East Valley and defending state champion Ellensburg.

Cortes also brought in a pitching coach this year, Derek Garcia, a former East Valley standout who also played at Central Washington University.

“We’ve set an expectation for winning, and so far, the kids are showing that they are willing to put in the work,” Cortes said. “We’re also seeing a lot of talent at the middle school level, so we’re excited about the future.”

The ‘Cats have seen five games canceled due to weather, but they were expecting to take the field March 23 for a doubleheader against Wahluke.