In each of the last two years, Wapato’s girls have felt they were one of the best Class 2A basketball teams in the state. But both seasons ended in the regional round, keeping the Wolves agonizingly short of the state finals in the SunDome.
Last Friday, with seven seniors still carrying those stinging memories, Wapato was back at regionals for a third straight year and trying desperately to finally break through.
“With what was at stake — win or go home — there was so much pressure,” said Wapato coach Joe Blodgett. “It came down to a bounce here, a possession there. The girls never stopped believing they could get this one to go their way.”
Which it did, barely, holding off Grandview in a thriller for a 61-60 victory that earned the program its first trip to the state quarterfinals in 28 years.
“These girls have been through so much, they’ve grown and matured through it all,” Blodgett added. “Three years in a row in the same spot. I’m just so happy they will finally get to experience this.”
The third-ranked Wolves will take their 21-2 record into today’s first 2A girls quarterfinal — a 3:45 p.m. clash with No. 9 Renton (22-4). Wapato will be both potentially vulnerable and highly dangerous among the state’s elite eight, being unquestionably the shortest team in the field and yet fully capable of compensating for it.
The two senior sparkplugs — 5-foot-6 Briana Cordova and 5-4 Darian Gasseling — are CWAC first-teammers averaging just under 13 points a game. Gasseling broke loose for a career-high 27 points in the regional win and has hit double digits in eight straight games. Sophomore Lexie Gomez picked up second-team honors in the CWAC.
Cordova, Gasseling and Joanne Anderson — Wapato’s tallest player at 5-9 and recently back from a knee injury — have been on varsity for four years.
With so many seniors, the Wolves know their identity and it comes from defense, a relentless focus that has held opponents to 42 points a game.
“That’s our strength and it has to be,” said Blodgett, the CWAC’s coach of the year. “We get into our offensive flow through our defense. Our offense doesn’t come as natural any other way. When we’re up-tempo, pressing and trapping, forcing tournovers and getting our transition game going — that’s what comes natural to us.”
After a season-opening nonleague loss, Wapato reeled off 18 straight wins before dropping its conference finale at Ellensburg, scoring a season-low 37 points. The Wolves had clinched the CWAC title in the previous game and Blodgett saw a less-than-focused crew that night.
“We celebrated, took a deep breath and kind of forgot we had one more game,” he said. “Reaching the goal of a league championship was a big, big deal, but we had to refocus our intensity.”
Which the Wolves did, avenging the loss to Ellensburg in the district final to set up the regional showdown with Grandview.
To continue the postseason run, Wapato faces a Renton team that had a 15-game win streak in the regular season but did lose twice in the postseason. One of those losses, to Sumner, was reversed in the regional round and that earned the Indians a state quarterfinal for the first time since 1987.
“They’ve been away from state as long as we have,” Blodgett said, “and they use their quickness and defense like we do.”
Renton’s difference, however, is channeling most of its scoring through one player — 5-11 junior Taylor Farris. The Seamount League player of the year averages 23 points and is the team’s lone double-digit scorer.
“We think it’s a good matchup for us, and our girls are excited to see how they stack up in a state tournament,” the coach said. “We’ve been so close. Last year we got knocked out by Clarkston, which won it all, and the year before East Valley got us at regionals. Now we’re here and we’re going to savor it.”