When Rick Puente took over as Sunnyside’s girls basketball coach in 2010, the program was struggling through a run of four straight years with 19 losses. And when his first season was done, the streak was up to five years.
But there was hope.
“We were trying to change the attitude and culture, and it started with coming in every single day to compete,” the coach said. “That first year we were in a lot of very tight games. We didn’t focus on being 1-19, we focused on how we competed and how we were in so many close games. We were doing something right, and taking a step in the right direction. We needed just a little bit more.”
Three years later the Grizzlies are in the Class 3A state quarterfinals.
Puente’s crew is dominated by juniors, lacks height and has never played in the Tacoma Dome. But those potential hindrances haven’t amounted to anything so far as Sunnyside has rolled up 11 straight wins and averaged 70 points in three convincing postseason victories.
It’s been a steeply upward success curve for the Grizzlies, who added 10 wins from the previous season in Puente’s second year and 10 more in his fourth.
“The work the girls have put in is second to none,” said Puente, whose coaching staff all four years has included David Guevara and Sean Sleater and, more recently, Vanessa Meija. “That first year when we sat down together as a staff obviously we weren’t thinking how fast can we go from one win to 20. We set smaller attainable goals and worked on changing the mindset. Once you have some progress, things change and confidence grows.”
It wasn’t just the .500 record in Puente’s second season that was encouraging, it was the composition of the personnel — a freshman class loaded with speed and scoring ability. The junior foursome of Jordan Rodriguez, Tiana Perez, Natalia Bazan and Selena Rubalcava was in on the ground floor of the restoration project and the huge amount of playing time they’ve accrued offsets the fact Sunnyside has only one senior on the roster this season.
“We have a motto of ‘All In’ and those girls are perfect examples,” Puente noted. “In practice, in games, in the classroom — it’s a dedication of time and effort and they’ve done it. Their drive is everything you could hope for.”
The Grizzlies toughened themselves with 15 league games against 4A schools, tying Moses Lake for the CBBN title, and then hit their stride in the postseason. With 18 3-pointers and 104 free throws in four games, they get it done with shooting depth from the perimeter combined with the speed and pressure to frustrate taller, slower opponents.
The challenge goes up considerably on Thursday when Sunnyside (21-3) takes on Bellevue (21-6) at 5:30 p.m. in the second quarterfinal of the day in Tacoma. There is some commonality through Davis, which lost to Bellevue 69-51 and beat Sunnyside in two of three meetings.
The Wolverines placed fifth at state last year with a young team and have regrouped from a three-game skid after beating Davis on Jan. 4. Like Sunnyside, Bellevue has been impressive of late winning five straight postseason games before falling to top-ranked Cleveland in the SeaKing district final. Six-foot sophomore Shelby Cansler (15.7) and junior Mandy Steward (14.7) are the scoring leaders.
“We’re expecting a real fight. When it gets down to eight teams that’s what all the games will be,” Puente said. “These girls are ready and willing to play at state. They’ve played a lot of basketball together, and they’re mature beyond their years. This is what they’ve worked so hard for, so we’re going to enjoy it.”
Coach: Rick Puente, fourth season.
State tournament history: Seven appearances, two trophies.
Last state appearance: 2002.
Thursday’s 3A quarterfinal opponent: Bellevue, 5:30 p.m.
No. Player Yr. Pos. Ht. PPG
2 Mireya Herrera Jr. G 5-3 1.0
3 Vanessa Alvarez Sr. G-F 5-8 9.0
4 Summer Hazzard So. F 5-9 1.6
5 Jasmine Lua Jr. F 5-6 1.7
10 Jazel Trevino Jr. PG 5-0 1.0
11 Aubrey Isquierdo So. PG 5-4 1.0
12 Natalia Bazan Jr. G 5-6 8.3
20 Selena Rubalcava Jr. G 5-5 7.3
21 Emilee Maldonado Fr. PG 5-2 10.8
22 Jessica Mendoza Fr. F 5-7 4.7
23 Jordan Rodriguez Jr. G 5-8 13.7
24 Tiana Perez Jr. C 5-10 7.5