Spring prep sports teams look forward to first shot at state competition since 2019

A preview of Washougal Panthers' 2022 baseball, boys soccer, fastpitch softball, girls tennis and track and field teams

Washougal High School pitcher Kohner Robledo throws a pitch during the Panthers' home softball game against Centralia High School on Thursday, March 17, 2022. (Doug Flanagan/Post-Record)

This spring, Washougal High School athletes will have a chance to qualify for a Washington Interscholastic Interactivities Association (WIAA) state championship event for the first time since 2019.

The WIAA canceled its entire spring sports season in 2020 and its state championship events in 2021 due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We want to help the players transition back to being student-athletes,” said new Panthers girls tennis coach Alysia Noriega. “This is the first season in two years where COVID isn’t having such a direct impact on the season and our athletes’ ability to be out on the courts.”

Washougal High’s baseball, girls golf, boys soccer, fastpitch softball, girls tennis and track and field teams began their 2022 seasons earlier this month. Following is a look at how five of those squads are shaping up heading into the new season. Girls golf coach A.J. LaBree did not return the Post-Record’s requests for comment in time for this newspaper’s print deadline.

Baseball

The Washougal High baseball team looks to build off a successful 2021 campaign that concluded with an appearance in the 2A District 4 tournament.

“We will have a strong pitching staff, be a stonewall on defense and create chaos at the plate,” Panthers coach Zach Carter said. “I have high hopes that we’re going to be a league contender again this year, right up there with Ridgefield and Columbia River. The other coaches and I have high confidence in this team. The attitude and drive of these players sets them apart from previous teams I’ve coached. These players show up each and every day ready and hungry to learn and improve on their craft.”

Junior Travis Gibson returns as Washougal’s unquestioned ace and one of the best pitchers in the 2A Greater St. Helens League. He’ll be joined on the pitching staff by varsity newcomer Kohner Robledo, who has the ability to be a “strong force” on the mound this season, according to Carter.

The Panthers’ lineup is stacked with several talented athletes, including junior outfielder Blake Mattern, sophomore catcher Nate Olmos, senior second baseman Trenton Hamilton, senior shortstop Damian Panko and junior infielder Thad McDonald.

“Our goal for this year is to make it into the district tournament again as one of the top three teams,” Carter said. “I believe we can get there as long as we stick to who we are as a team, encourage one another, and continue to work hard as the season progresses.”

Boys soccer

Kemal Vejo takes over as Washougal High’s boys soccer coach, replacing Shane Jundt. Vejo is also the head coach of the boys soccer team at Benson (Oregon) High School, which plays in the fall, and previously coached the boys and girls teams at Kelso High School.

He takes over a “very young” team in Washougal, with a roster that includes 11 underclassmen and just two seniors.

“I was told that we lost eight seniors from last season,” he said. “I think we have four or five returning starters.”

The Panthers’ top returning players include senior midfielder/forward Rantin Reynolds, junior goalkeeper Alexander Holden, junior midfielder Gary Lyman and sophomore midfielder Colton Patronaggio. Vejo also expects that senior transfer Matthew Jehne will “be an essential part” of the team “and make a significant impact.”

“Despite our team being young and my first season coaching this team, my goal is to be competitive,” Vejo said. “It will not be easy because our league is very competitive, but our players are enthusiastic and ready to do their best to play well. It will take time for the boys to adjust to my coaching style and playing style. We would consider it a good season if we end up in the top five teams in our league.”

Fastpitch softball

The Washougal High fastpitch softball squad enters the 2022 season with a mix of veteran and new players, according to coach John Carver.

The Panthers bring back five returning starters (senior Natalie Collins, sophomore Grace Dahl, Emma Camp, junior Lailah Partridge and senior Peyton Robb), as well as “rotational players” Ziniaya Trask and Emma Seekins, both seniors.

“I think all of these players will positively impact the success of our team this season,” Carver said.

Carver is also excited about the potential Addysen Case and Catharine Dewey, “two really promising freshmen that will also make the varsity team.”

“The main goals for the season are to keep improving through the last week, scrap and fight every game in anticipation of achieving success, outhit our opponents, and make defensive plays that we are known for year after year.”

Girls tennis

Noriega, who was hired to replace previous coach Angela Watts, played tennis at Everett High School, coached a co-educational middle school team for several years and worked for the United States Tennis Association, implementing after-school programs in Bellingham, Washington.

She takes over a squad that she believes has “a great shot at being one of the top teams in the league this year.”

“We want to help our athletes strengthen their individual skill sets while also strengthening our overall team camaraderie,” she said. “During a tennis match, there are typically five to six matches happening all at once, and it is easy for players to only focus on their own match rather than how we are doing as a whole team. We want our players to feel invested not only in themselves, but also their teammates’ success.”

Elise Moore, Avery Berg and Anika Adams begin the season as the Panthers’ top three singles players. Jaisa Wilson and Hadley Jones are Washougal’s No. 1 doubles team, followed by the tandems of Sammy Mederos and Lauren Rabus, and Brooklyn Curtis and Molly Rabus.

“We have a deep roster of talent,” Noriega said. “Many of our junior varsity athletes could easily be playing at the varsity level, and it is exciting that we can be so versatile when looking at different lineups and team placements.”

Track and field

In 2019, 75 student-athletes turned out for the Washougal High track and field team. That number decreased slightly during a shortened season impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic in 2021 but rebounded in a big way this spring.

“Right now we’re at 104, so our numbers have increased dramatically,” Panthers coach Dave Hajek said. “We’re pretty happy with where we’re at and the fact that we’re going to have a (full) season.”

The Panthers are loaded with talented athletes, particularly on the girls side. Sophomore Elle Thomas and junior Sydney Boothby, who will compete in the 1,600- and 3,200-meter runs, finished sixth and ninth, respectively, at the 2A cross country state meet last fall, while senior Bella Juhl won the discus title at the 2A District 4 meet in the spring of 2021.

Hajek also expects big things from senior middle distance runner Jamie Maas, sophomore middle distance runner Paige Maas, senior high jumper Carissa de la Rocha, senior high jumper/javelin thrower Jaiden Bea and freshman discus thrower Iris Hancock.

“We have some veterans coming back that have been with us the last couple of years who are very talented,” Hajek said. “The girls have some more proven options for placing at state with the distance runners and Bella Juhl winning the district title in the discus last year. “I could see them doing well. I could see them scoring at least in the top 10, if not the top four. I think we’re a pretty good contender on the girls (side), not only for the league title — I think we’ll be in the hunt for a district title and maybe also bring home a state trophy.”

There’s plenty of talent but less certainty on the boys side, which will be led by junior Tucker Kneipp, who hopes to be a state meet contender in the high jump and triple jump.

The Panthers also return sophomore distance runner Samuel Grice; sophomore sprinter Liam Churchman; and throwers Holden Bea, a sophomore, and Zach Phillips, a junior; and welcome the talents of transfers Alex Juhl, a thrower, and sophomore Jayson Graham, a middle distance runner. “We have a lot of question marks, so it’s a bit too early to speculate (how the boys will do),” Hajek said. “We’ll have to put some of those pieces together like a puzzle. We have a lot of good athletes, but we have to find spots for them. Last year was our worst year as a boys team that we’ve had in the past 12 to 15 years — we didn’t really compete for a league title. But this year we think we will.”