Photo by Patrick Shelby
WIAA 1A HARDWOOD CLASSIC CHAMPIONS — Assistant Coach Mike McCullough, along with the Zillah Leopards basketball family, celebrate the winning moment in tribute to his two-year-old son, Max, who passed away on Memorial Day last year. The team dedicated their season in memory of making Max proud and capped it off with a state title.
YAKIMA The No. 3 seeded Zillah Leopards went on a 7-0 run to open up the third quarter on their way to cutting down the nets on their second WIAA 1A Hardwood Classic Championship in the last three years during a 90-68 victory over the No. 11 King’s Way Christian Knights at the Yakima Valley SunDome this past Saturday evening.
“We played well on offensive for four quarters but (King’s Way Christian) played so well in the first half offensively. I thought our defense was pretty good. In the third quarter, we finally caught up to them,” ZHS Head Coach Mario Mengarelli enthusiastically explained. “I have tough seniors… I love them… Our full team defense was awesome in the second half.”
One Team…One Dream… #PLAYFORMAX theme inspired the Zillah squad and community to band together and dedicate the season in loving memory of Assistant Coach Mike McCullough’s two-year-old son, Max, who passed away on last year’s Memorial Day Monday, May 28.
“There are no words to describe the amazing feeling and spirit of accomplishment,” coach Mengarelli eloquently stated. “We dedicated ourselves to making Max proud of us, and as the season progressed, the more it meant.”
McCullough, who had been hired about a month prior to that commemorative day, in which a community would share in the family’s mourning, sat on the bench as his third grade son Myles performed his managerial duties alongside his dad.
“It’s crazy. It means a lot to not only me as a person but to our whole community. Everybody’s behind us, you know. It’s just insane. It’s destiny. That’s how it’s supposed to happen,” exclaimed ZHS senior point guard Antonio Salinas, who was awarded the tournament’s Most Valuable Player after he finished with 17 points and 6 assists.
Leading 43-39 at halftime, ZHS senior Cesar Diaz opened up the third quarter, knocking down a 3-pointer and a floater in the lane.
ZHS junior power forward Sebastian Godina followed up strong on the offensive glass with a put back bucket as the Leopards led 50-39 and forced the Knights to call a full timeout with 5:20 remaining.
“I felt like I just had to prove something. We came up short last year, and I felt bad. That was like the worst feeling of my life. And, I didn’t want to feel that way again. I just gave it my all,” exclaimed Diaz, who had a team high 25 points on 11-of-15 field goals, 1-of-2 from beyond the arch and 2-of-4 free throws.
King’s Way Christian responded with their own 5-0 run and were down 50-44 with just under 3:30 to play in the period. That would be as close as the Knights would get.
“The first few games (of the tournament), we didn’t play very well. We were just playing pretty crappy, I felt. And, then we finally played Zillah basketball and came out with a big ‘W’,” Godina candidly acknowledged following his 18 point and 9 rebound performance.
“We were only up by 4 points at halftime, and we had to come out strong to make sure we got this win.”
Salinas splashed down a three-point field goal, followed by a Diaz layup and foul on the shot.
Senior Brock Ellis connected on a field goal from behind the arch to extend the lead to 59-46 with 2:05 left in the period.
The Leopards outscored King’s Way Christian 24-7 in a fast and furious offensive outburst, which was ignited by the team’s aggressive defensive play.
“Every day, working hard in practice, pushing each other,” Ellis replied on how the team was able to focus and lock down the Knights on the defensive side during that pivotal third quarter surge. “Our bench, you know, when we practice each other, we just push each other. Not one guy in here doesn’t earn it!”
Ellis added 14 points and freshman Claysen Delp chipped in 10. The Leopards ended the game shooting 36-of-63 from the field for 57 percent, 10-of-18 3-pointers for 56 percent and 8-of-12 at the free throw line for 67 percent.
The Knights took the offensive charge to Zillah in the first half and shot 14-of-23 from the field for 61 percent, 6-of-10 behind the arch for 60 percent and 5-of-6 for 83 percent at the free throw line. In the second half, the Leopards defense held the Knights to 27 percent shooting from the field and 17 percent from three-point range.
“That was a special, special game… I am just so happy. It was destiny. We played for Max, and everything came together. It’s more than basketball to us,” Mengarelli faithfully revealed as he held his 4-year-old daughter Benelli’s hand while they walked off the court together.