Aug. 31—MATTAWA — The Wahluke High School football team missed the first round of the 2022 playoffs by the smallest of margins, and coach Anfernee Cortez said his team is looking to change that result in 2023.
The Warriors qualified for a three-team tiebreaker playoff in 2022, winning against Kiona-Benton but losing to College Place. Cortez said qualifying for the tiebreaker was a sign of the team's improvement.
"It was nice to get to that tiebreaker game last season, and now we can build off it," he said.
Seniors Chris Gallardo, Kacey Hirai and Andrew Yorgesen said Wahluke players have set their goal.
"State," they said in unison.
"Making the playoffs," added junior Anthony Cuevas.
Hirai said there's more to it than that.
"Be competitive in the playoffs, though. Not just making it — we want to be competitive," Hirai said.
To get that far requires some work.
"We've been working hard in practice — continue that, translate it to games and win games," Hirai said.
Cortez has been head coach for four years and was an assistant prior to that, and said his goal has been steady improvement in a tough league. The South Central Athletic Conference (East) has a number of quality teams, he said, beginning with the three-time defending state champion Royal Knights. Every game in league play will be a challenge, he said, and to meet the challenge the coaches have put a lot of emphasis on setting a standard.
"We've been working on competing. Everything we've been doing is competition, no matter if it's in the classroom drawing up plays on the board, being out there on the field doing drills, and then being in the weight room. Everything is still in that competition. That's been a big, big focus for us so far. And I like what I'm seeing from our guys and their response to it," Cortez said.
Making sure the players are mentally prepared has been the other area of focus, he said — spending time before practice going over plays and studying possible game situations.
"We've been getting great responses from (the players)," Cortez said.
Because the SCAC is going to be a challenge, Cortez said he sought to challenge his team over the summer, going to a football camp that featured 4A teams.
"I liked how our guys responded to it. It was exciting to see," he said.
"We're creating the mentality where we're it doesn't matter who we're playing, we're going to compete. We're going to be tough, we're going to be physical, we're going to play fast," he said.
Cortez's first year as head coach coincided with the arrival of the now-senior class. He said he likes the leadership qualities he's seen in the seniors early in the season.
"They lead by being vocal and lead by action," he said.
Gallardo said it's up to the players to reach the team's potential.
"I think we definitely have the right pieces to do what we've got to do. But I think we've just got to put them all together," Gallardo said.
The seniors want to make a lasting impact on the football program. It's been a while, 15 years or so, since Wahluke had a winning football tradition, Yorgesen said, and the seniors want to change that.
That requires leadership, and the seniors said that means setting a standard and holding everyone to it — but being positive at the same time.
"We've got to build each other up. We can't tear each other up — that's not going to help," Hirai said.
Success, the players said, will require not taking anyone for granted, but not being intimidated by anybody either.
"We have to try hard every game, no matter who it is," Gallardo said.
Cortez said the season will be a challenge, but he thinks his players are up for it.
"Some of these players, they're — I like to say, they don't back down, to be honest," he said. "They don't care how big the other team is, or who they're going against. They're building a mentality where we know what we've got to do, now it's go get the job done."
Cheryl Schweizer may be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Wahluke Football Schedule
Sept. 1 — @ Grandview — 7 p.m.
Sept. 8 — vs. Warden — 7 p.m.
Sept. 15 — @ Naches Valley — 7 p.m.
Sept. 22 — vs. Zillah — 7 p.m.
Sept. 29 — vs. Royal — 7 p.m.
Oct. 6 — @ College Place — 7 p.m.
Oct. 13 — vs. Connell — 7 p.m.
Oct. 20 — @ La Salle — 7 p.m.
Oct. 27 — @ Kiona-Benton — 6 p.m.