YAKIMA, Wash. -- They’ve been fierce rivals for years, especially of late, but for the neighboring wrestling programs at Zillah and Granger the stakes are going up this season.
A year after both brought home team hardware from the Class 1A state championships, the two SCAC West powers begin the new campaign atop the preseason state rankings with Zillah No. 1 and Granger No. 2.
“It’s nice to see two local teams in this position,” said Mike Gonzales, who has directed Zillah to a state trophy in each of the last three trips to Mat Classic. “Both are very tough teams and it should be a fun season.”
“It’s pretty cool seeing two teams from the Valley that are five minutes away from each other ranked 1-2 in the state,” said Granger’s Ruben Saldivar, whose Spartans have earned two state trophies in the last three seasons. “They definitely help motivate us to try to be the best we can be.”
Both Gonzales and Saldivar are understandably cautious about speculating outcomes in February, but there is strong support for regarding Zillah and Granger this highly this early.
The Leopards finished third at state last season, just four points out of second, and, impressively, had all nine of their qualifiers earn medals. Five of those medalists are back and four are experience-heavy seniors — Jessy Gonzales, Cortez Hernandez, Shane McMurray and Jeremiah Atkins — to go along with sophomore Diego Hernandez.
That core all earned top-three finishes in Saturday’s 17-team Bob Mars Invitational in Kennewick and the Leopards scored 133 points to place second behind Chiawana, which is ranked eighth in 4A.
Granger was fourth at state last season with six top-five medalists and all six are back, including two-time champion Joshua Salcedo, a senior who hasn’t lost since his freshman year. The Spartans were limited somewhat because four of those placers were in two weight classes — sophomore Victor Almaguer and junior Jose Cienfuegos at 106 and Salcedo and junior Ricky Almaguer at 113. Expect more distribution of that talent to go along with two other Mat Classic medalist, seniors Adrian Guerrero and Abidan Duarte.
Even without Salcedo, who is expected back in January, the Spartans rolled up 237.5 points in Saturday’s Davis Invitational and beat Peninsula, a 3A state-ranked team.
So the veteran lineups are obviously stout, but there’s more good news. Orting, the four-time reigning 1A state champion, has moved up to 2A and is ranked second behind Deer Park.
“That opens up some opportunities for other teams, including us,” Saldivar said. “I think we’ll miss seeing them at state as well. You always want to wrestle and hopefully beat the best, and you can always depend on them to be on top of their game.”
“It definitely opens some doors because they have a very good program,” Gonzales added. “I still believe it would be a battle this year for the top spots because they graduated a lot. It would be pretty tight between the top teams.”
Simply residing in the SCAC will be tough enough. In addition to Zillah and Granger in the West, the East has three state-ranked teams in Royal (4th), Kiona-Benton (7th) and Warden (9th), which moved up to 1A after winning the 2B-1B state title last season.
There will clearly be no ducking each other and waiting for their dual meet on Jan. 24. Not only will Zillah attend Saturday’s Ironman Invitational in Granger, but third-ranked Chelan will be in the field as well. And a week later, Zillah will defend its SunDome Mat Classic title with the Spartans in the big field.
Whatever happens during the next two Saturdays, the real prize waits in Tacoma.
“It’s still real early and there’s a long season ahead where anything can happen,” Saldivar said. “We’re definitely hoping that at the end we’ll be in a position to make a run at a team championship, but only time will tell.”