Winter sports: Basketball, wrestling and more

All-Region Boys Basketball: Yanni Fassilis, Union


Union senior Yanni Fassilis

The Columbian

Even Yanni Fassilis was surprised by how quickly the results of his work came to fruition.

Coming off of a promising junior season in the Union boys basketball program, Fassilis, a 6-foot-4 post, made it his goal over the summer to expand his game to the perimeter and develop a more well-rounded skill set.

In order to become faster and more athletic, he wanted to lose some weight.

Within two months of dedicating himself to a healthier diet, in addition to a schedule packed full of weight room and on-court workouts, Fassilis saw the differences while playing at summer camps and pick-up games.

He was moving around the court faster. He was jumping significantly higher. Over the course of the transformation, Fassilis estimated he lost approximately 30 pounds.

“Once that kept going and the fall season started at Union,” Fassilis said, “I just realized I could do way more than I thought I could.”

That revelation also left Union coach Blake Conley and his assistants a lot to work with. They envisioned him playing on the wing, bringing the ball up the court as the point and even coming off of ball screens, in addition to everything else he already brought to the team on offense and as the key cog in the Titans’ zone defense.

Everything they threw at Fassilis, The Columbian’s All-Region boys basketball player of the year, the senior took and ran with. In 25 games this season, Fassilis averaged nearly 25 points, set new program records in steals (91) and deflections (130) while leading the Titans to an eighth consecutive state tournament appearance.

“He loves to play basketball, so I was never worried about him not working on the skills,” Conley said. “But it was amazing with him just 100 percent dedicating change to his body, how he moved … and how it changed his game completely.”

Conley hadn’t seen Fassilis for some time after Union’s summer season wrapped up at the end of June. Upon returning to Union at the start of the new school year, Conley ran into head football coach Rory Rosenbach, who joked, “are you worried about how skinny Yanni is getting?”

The next time Conley saw Fassilis, he looked drastically different from just a couple months prior. He also recognized how hard Fassilis was working in the weight room by himself and through the team’s strength training program.

“Obviously he’s so strong, and the thing I was impressed with, he never lost his strength,” Conley said. “He lost a lot of weight; he didn’t lose any strength. In fact, he became more explosive as an athlete.”

“I never wanted to lose too much weight,” Fassilis added. “I’m a big guy and I always wanted to stay bigger. I thought being one of the stronger guys on the court was always one of my biggest strengths.”

Fassilis’ added versatility gave Union plenty of new looks offensively. The part that sometimes went overlooked, though, is the massive impact Fassilis had on the Titans’ defense.

His transfer to Union from 2A Washougal ahead of the 2021-22 season coincided with the Titans switching from a man-to-man to 2-3 zone defense. Fassilis had a knack for reading passes, being quick to the ball with tremendously fast hand speed. With him in the middle of Union’s zone, the fit was seamless.

“I think as good as he was on offense, he was better on defense,” Conley said. “There was not a defensive player who meant more to his team in the last two years than Yanni with that zone. He made it look really good.”

Union had a bumpy first month of the season and found itself at the bottom of the 4A Greater St. Helens League standings after losses to Battle Ground and Camas.

The latter loss on Jan. 3 proved to be the team’s last for nearly two months.

Union reeled off 12 straight wins, including four in the postseason, to reach the Class 4A state round of 12 at the Tacoma Dome. The Titans’ season ended there in a loss to Richland.

That turnaround, Fassilis said, showed the team’s unity and ability to fight. It’s what he was most proud of this season.

“In the beginning of the year we started pretty downhill, and a lot of people didn’t think we had it in us,” he said. “Maybe even some guys on the team didn’t think we had it in us. But the coaches believed in us and we believed in the program, the system and we just kept working at it.”

One of the main reasons behind Fassilis’ offseason transformation was to become a better fit for prospective college basketball programs. He and Conley, who announced earlier this week he’s stepping down as Union’s head coach, continue to stay in contact with multiple college coaches. For now, Fassilis said he’s keeping all of his options open.

Whether or not Fassilis continues playing basketball, he left a legacy in two years at Union with his all-around play and an exuberant style that rubbed off on teammates.

“When Yanni was at his best, it was noticeable for everybody else,” Conley said. “It was contagious for sure.”

 — Will Denner

All-Region Girls Basketball: Addison Harris, Camas


Camas High School junior Addison Harris

Amanda Cowan of The Columbian

From signing autographs for youngsters to talking basketball with retirees, Addison Harris understands the impact Camas High’s girls basketball program made in 2022-23.

The week of the Class 4A state tournament’s Opening Round and almost two weeks before Camas played for its first-ever state championship in girls basketball, the current Papermaker players and coaches visited Springwood Landing Retirement Center in Vancouver.

Chats ranged from basketball to life experiences. The residents were inspired by the current generation of Papermakers, but Harris took away something else that still sticks with her.

“How inspirational they are,” she said.

It’s all part of a memorable season for Harris, The Columbian’s All-Region girls basketball player of the year, helping lead Camas to its best season in girls basketball.

Even more so, head coach Scott Thompson said Harris has arrived as a basketball player. And that goes beyond being a two-time 4A Greater St. Helens League MVP.

“She’s gotten to the point where she’s taking on some of the top players in the country,” Thompson said, “and going toe to toe with them. She’s just going to continue to grow and be special.”

Harris is more than a 6-foot-2 athletic post with a long wingspan and runs the floor with the best of them. This winter, Thompson challenged the junior to be more of a perimeter shooting threat.

The goal: attempt one 3-pointer per game. Harris delivered in all facets, averaging 17.2 points and 10.5 rebounds per game while shooting 53 percent from the floor.

But perhaps her best moments are what Harris shared with her teammates. All season, Camas prided itself on passing — passing up a good shot for a better one.

In December, when it lost 58-53 to the nation’s top team, Sierra Canyon (Calif.), the Papermakers learned just what kind of a team they are. That’s the game Harris went toe to toe with Juju Watkins, a University of Southern California signee recently named the Gatorade National Player of the Year.

“That’s our recipe for winning,” Harris said of her team’s passing. “Like against Sierra Canyon, we’re not going to beat those guys going one-on-one. Passing, it’s our little niche. It’s worked for us, and it’s going to keep working for us.”

Camas never lost to a Washington team all season until falling to Eastlake, 48-41, in the Class 4A championship game at the Tacoma Dome. The second-place trophy is now displayed in the school’s trophy case.

Harris admits she hasn’t watched the state championship game played March 4. Not yet, she says, but soon.

“I’ve definitely been processing it,” she said. “I’m always thinking about that last game, running over and over what I could have done better.”

But the state experience now has Camas poised for an even bigger season in 2024. All seven players in their rotation return, including the player her head coach said has now arrived.

And a program that continues to be an inspiration for all ages.

“We’ve got a chip on our shoulder now,” Harris said. “We know what the Dome is like and we know what to expect.”

— Meg Wochnick

All-Region Boys Wrestling: JJ Schoenlein, Skyview


Skyview sophomore JJ Schoenlein

Taylor Balkom of The Columbian

The bright lights and big crowds of Mat Classic weren’t too much for JJ Schoenlein.

Wrestling for a state championship in front of more than 10,000 people at the Tacoma Dome is enough to rattle even the toughest competitors.

But Schoenlein isn’t a stranger to high-profile tournaments. Since he was a fourth grader, the Skyview sophomore has been competing and thriving at some of the nation’s biggest wrestling events.

That included earning All-American honors as the USA Wrestling Folkstyle Nationals in Iowa and the Flo Reno Worlds as a fifth grader. He then won the 12-under 145-pound division at the Reno Worlds in Tulsa tournament in 2020.

But no championship meant more to Schoenlein than winning the Class 4A state championship at 170 pounds last month at Mat Classic.

Schoenlein’s 6-5 win over Hanford’s Eli Perkes in the title match made him one of just two boys in Southwest Washington to win a state championship this year. It also capped a season that saw him lose just one match.

“It’s so hard to put into words the gratitude I feel for my coaches and everyone who helped me get here,” Schoenlein said. For his accomplishments, Schoenlein is The Columbian’s All-Region boys wrestler of the year.

As child, Schoenlein tried all the sports most kids play. Nothing clicked with him like wrestling, with the fast pace, constant movement and extreme focus that the sport demands.

“I have an ADHD mind,” Schoenlein said. “When I played baseball I was OK at hitting the ball. But when I would get on the bases I would literally be so bored. I would pick the bases up and play with the dirt.”

Schoenlein first tried wrestling as a first grader. That soon led him to Portland’s Peninsula Wrestling Club led by Roy Pittman, a National Wrestling Hall of Fame inductee.

“I was only in the little kids area for a day before I got bumped up to the bigger guys,” Schoenlein said. “It clicked with me pretty quick and I got decent pretty fast.”

Schoenlein carried his club wrestling success into high school. As a freshman, he won district and regional championships before placing fifth at the 2022 Mat Classic at 160 pounds.

Before this season, Skyview head coach Jeff Thompson and Schoenlein had a two-hour conversation where they outlined a plan that would make a state championship a reality.

“We had to bring in college guys,” Thompson said. “JJ is a born leader. He knew what he wanted to do. He wanted to be a state champion.”

Among those to who helped show Schoenlein a higher level of wrestling was Jackson McKinney, a 2018 state champion at Skyview who wrestles for Oregon State and placed third in the Pac-12 at 174 pounds in 2020.

“That was a good wake-up call to what the next level is really like,” Schoenlein said. “He was beating up on me pretty hard.”

Former collegiate athletes who helped Schoenlein include Bryan Hugo, a Ridgefield grad who wrestled at Wabash College (Indiana) and Alex Bubb, a Skyview graduate who wrestled at Portland State.

“(Bubb) is a man with a job but he took time to come in and drill with me for two hours each day for three weeks,” Schoenlein said. “One day, he was like ‘I just called six of my state champion buddies to try and get any advice that I could.’ He poured every drop into it.”

Newly added to the wall of Skyview’s wrestling room is a wooden plaque carved in the shape of Washington. Adorned with Schoenlein’s name and picture, it’s the late keepsake made by one of Thompson’s friends, who makes one for each Skyview state champion.

And for Schoenlein, that plaque honors everyone who helped him reach his childhood goal of becoming the state’s best.

“It’s something on the wall that my friends and coaches can look to and say, I was a part of that,” Schoenlein said. “I want them to say that because they really put everything into me. We got that investment back.”

— Micah Rice

All-Region Girls Wrestling: Faith Tarrant, Prairie


Prairie sophomore Faith Tarrant

Micah Rice of The Columbian

For Faith Tarrant, wrestling is all about family.

There’s her Prairie High School wrestling clan, which inspired and cheered the sophomore to her second state championship last month.

Then there’s her family at home, which gets to share in Tarrant’s success.

Whenever Tarrant wins a medal at a tournament, her sister (age 5) and brothers (4 and 1) can also expect a reward.

“I give all my medals to my younger siblings,” Tarrant said. “I’m like, this is for being the best younger brother ever.”

Tarrant won each medal possible during her undefeated sophomore season. All 32 of her matches ended by pin, culminating with the Class 3A 235-pound state championship match at Mat Classic in Tacoma.

All wins. All pins. That perfect season left Prairie head coach Rob Smith in awe.

“It’s the most insane thing you can do,” Smith said. “I think she’s gone to the third period once this season. To do what she’s done this season is absurd.”

For her accomplishments, Tarrant is The Columbian’s All-Region girls wrestler of the year for a second time.

When asked what she’s most proud of this season, Tarrant turns the focus to the six other girls on Prairie’s wrestling team. That includes junior Aaliyah Young, who placed third in state at 170 pounds.

“Winning state was awesome, but I’m proud of the new community we’re building with girls wrestling,” Tarrant said. “I’m probably most proud of my teammates. I feel like I’m watching my kids grow up. I’m very proud of the effort we’re putting in as a team.”

Tarrant’s unblemished record gives the illusion that this season was a breeze. That’s far from the truth.

“This year I was way more nervous,” Tarrant said. “Before my matches I would walk back and forth and freak myself out. My team was like, why are you so nervous?”

Some of those nerves came from appreciating the magnitude of what Mat Classic means to most wrestlers. As a freshman, Tarrant started wrestling partway through the season. She entered the Tacoma Dome not understanding what the big deal was.

“The upperclassmen, everyone was always taking about it,” Tarrant said of Mat Classic. “In my head, I’m just like OK, I’m going to go wrestle again.”

But this year, wearing the target of a state champion, Tarrant felt the pressure.

She also learned she thrives under that stress.

“I work really well under pressure,” Tarrant said. “I might have my best performances under pressure.”

Beyond controlling nerves, Smith said Tarrant’s command of leverage and angles is well beyond what he sees in most high school wrestlers.

“She understands body position,” Smith said. “She knows what she needs to do to counter what her opponents are doing. She really analyzes what’s going on while a match is happening. … She’s learned not to force a move and let her opponents come to her.”

Ranked in the top 20 nationwide in her weight class, Tarrant is taking steps to eventually wrestle in college. That will include competing in freestyle tournaments this summer. Colleges competition is freestyle while high school is folkstyle.

“I feel like there’s always room to improve,” Tarrant said. “It’s amazing to be a state champion but I want to remain a state champion. I have to work even harder because it’s going to be harder.”

— Micah Rice

All-Region Boys Swimming: Sam Empey, Union


Union junior Sam Empey

Taylor Balkom of The Columbian

By most standards, Sam Empey had a really great state meet last month at Federal Way.

The Union High School junior swam to two individual state titles and captured a third as part of the Union 200-yard freestyle relay team.

Empey finished the 200 free in 1 minute, 39.43 seconds, more than five seconds faster than the next fastest competitor at the Class 4A meet.

But he wanted more.

He had his eye set on the state record of 1:37.17 in the 200 free, a mark set by five-time Olympic gold medalist Nathan Adrian for Bremerton in 2006.

“I don’t know what it was,” Empey said. “I know I could have done better because I would go faster in training. I don’t know what happened. It just wasn’t the weekend for that.”

But what Empey accomplished at last month’s state meet was more than enough to earn his second consecutive selection as The Columbian’s All-Region boys swimmer of the year.

Empey’s state meet came toward the end of a big year for the swimmer.

Last fall, Empey made a verbal commitment to swim for Auburn University.

“I started talking to Auburn last summer,” Empey said. “They reached out to me after I had sectionals in the spring. I took a visit in September, right after my summer season, and I just loved it.”

Empey also took visits to Alabama, Missouri and Minnesota, but none of the schools measured up to Auburn.

“I loved all the guys there,” he said. “The coaches are fantastic, and the campus was amazing. I don’t know, I just knew when I was there that it was the place for me.”

Being part of a successful team was something Empey enjoyed about this past season at Union High School. And the culmination at the state meet was perfect reflection of that.

Empey said the most memorable parts of the state meet wasn’t how he performed as an individual, but how his teammates performed.

“I was surprised,” he said. “The other guys stepped up when I didn’t have my best performances. They made up for my loss. I was hoping for a win in a couple of the relays, but I wasn’t sure if we could get there. If you looked at the times (going into the meet) we were definitely down. But we managed to place (third) in the 400 free relay and won the 200 free relay.”

In the 200 free relay, Empey didn’t get the Titans off to a start he had hoped, even though he swam the fastest leg of his team.

But teammates Owen Robertson, brother Steven Empey and anchorman Alexander Wahlman came up big to propel Union to victory.

“That was probably the highlight of the meet for me,” Empey said. “That was probably my worst performance of the meet, but the best result. And that really speaks to how the other three did on the relay.”

Heading into his senior year at Union, Empey is looking forward to being a bigger piece of the team leadership.

“We are going to lose some big seniors on our relays from this year,” he said. “So we will need some people to step up. And I think I need to take that role of getting those people to that place.”

And he wants Nathan Adrian’s record.

“I’ve been thinking about that, reflecting after the (state) meet,” Empey said. “I knew I could have gone faster, and I’ll definitely make up for that next year.”

— Tim Martinez

All-Region Gymnastics: Madi Williams, Camas


Camas junior Maddie Williams

Taylor Balkom of The Columbian

Madi Williams would rather win giving it her all, than lose playing it safe.

That attitude helped the Camas High School junior capture the all-around title at the Class 4A state gymnastics meet last month. And it also helped her be named The Columbian’s All-Region gymnast of the year.

“I put in a new tumbling pass that I had never done in competition before,” Williams said of her floor exercise routine at state. “And it was definitely harder, and it did increase my floor score, which was super helpful for the team and all-around title. We took a risk with it. I talked to the coaches, and we all decided that the risk was worth it.”

Williams posted a season-best score of 9.500 on the floor, her final event in the all-around competition at state. That propelled her past Emily Brouwers of Woodinville to capture the all-around title with a score of 37.300.

“I’m so glad it paid off,” Williams said. “It’s so fun to try that new skill and feel the adrenaline rush you have inside when you finally succeed at it.”

It also helped that the floor exercise is her strongest, and favorite, event.

“It is really fun to show off your personality when you perform on the floor and play to the crowd and just have fun with the dance portion of it, as well as obviously tumbling feels so good, just flying through the air,” she said.

Williams also earned top-4 finishes on all four individual apparatus, including third on the bars, which Williams calls her weakest event.

It was an impressive high school state meet debut for Williams. She competed for the Camas High team as a freshman in 2021, but that was the pandemic season with no state championships. Last season, she was sidelined with a foot injury.

“It was so amazing competing for the Camas team,” Williams said. “I competed for my club my whole life, but with the high school team it’s a different experience. You are surrounded by all these people who are cheering you on and motivating you and wanting you to do well.”

Williams has been involved in gymnastics since age 3. During the high school season, she can spend five hours a night practicing for both her club team and high school team.

She also plays trumpet in the Camas High band and has played the piano since fourth grade.

A 4.0 AP Scholar student, Williams is involved in Camas’ Magnet program which specializes in math, science and technology.

And she owes her academic success to lessons learned through gymnastics.

“Gymnastics forces you to work so hard from such an early age that you can bring that into every other aspect of your life,” she said. “So I’m very grateful to have learned that lesson.”

— Tim Martinez

All-Region Girls Bowling: Kierra Wilcox, Evergreen


Evergreen senior Kierra Wilcox

Elayna Yussen for The Columbian

Evergreen bowling coach Robin Bailey had a feeling this season would be a special one for senior Kierra Wilcox.

That’s not to say the previous three weren’t, of course.

Wilcox joined the Plainsmen for the 2019-20 season as they won the 3A district and state championships, then repeated as district champs in 2021 and 2022.

This season, though, the spotlight shined squarely on Wilcox to be Evergreen’s top bowler and a leader for her teammates.

When the success didn’t come right away, Wilcox had some doubts about where the season was going.

“We shot our lowest score in the last four years and I had a breakdown that night. I was upset,” Wilcox said, referring to a regular season match against Heritage. “I was like, ‘we’re not gonna do good at districts. We’re going to struggle.’ ”

Bailey said Wilcox wasn’t convinced success would come because of the lack of big scores.

“She kept saying, ‘I don’t know, Robin.’ … I had to keep telling her, ‘you’re going to be OK. It’s going to be your year,’ ” Bailey said.

That hunch was spot on.

When Wilcox, The Columbian’s All-Region girls bowler of the year, and Evergreen started the postseason, the lights suddenly came on for a team that always had talent, but was still figuring out how to put it all together.

The run started at the 3A district tournament on Jan. 27 when Wilcox claimed the individual title and helped Evergreen win the team title as well.

“It was like it was a different team,” Wilcox said. “My team had changed. We were in good moods, we were energized, we were happy all day. It was crazy.”

Just five days later, that positive energy followed the team to Bowlero in Tukwila for the 3A state championships, where Wilcox won the 3A individual title and the Plainsmen won their first team title since 2020.

The morning of day one at state, Bailey sensed Wilcox was ready to go. On the way to bowling alley in the team bus, she and teammates were singing along to Bon Jovi’s “Livin’ on a Prayer” to fire themselves up.

“They were singing and doing their thing,” Bailey said. “The attitudes were really high, so that really makes a difference too. She was getting everybody pumped up.”

Evergreen came out firing with games of 804, 929 and 887 pins to lead the team standings while Wilcox sat in first place of the individual leaderboard.

“Going into the day, the first three games gave us so much confidence to move and just continue to do what we know how to do,” Wilcox said.

The story of the day was Wilcox winning the individual state title, and the way it ended. Wilcox faced a 5-10 split on the 10th frame and picked up one pin, which proved to be the difference in a winning pin score of 1,140, ahead of Kelso’s Emily Strehle in second with 1,139 pins.

It was a proud moment for Wilcox, who placed fifth at state as a freshman and 11th as a junior, but she saw it as part of a bigger picture: helping her team.

“I cared (about the individual competition), but it wasn’t my main priority,” Wilcox said. “I just cleared the individual aspect out of my head and I was like, it’s a team thing. I need to be in it for my team and my team needs to be in it for each other.”

That mindset made the next day, Feb. 2, all the more rewarding when the Plainsmen team of Wilcox, Alexis Clarke, Bella Curry, Zoey Mikkelson, Chloe Shove and Alissa Barber won the 3A team title with a total of 7,182 across six individual and 14 baker games.

The title was Evergreen’s first since Wilcox was a freshman and her older sister Kailee, who was The Columbian’s All-Region girls bowler of the year, was a sophomore.

“It kind of felt like everything I worked on the last four years has finished and it all came back to help in the end,” Kierra Wilcox said.

To Bailey, the biggest difference between Wilcox’s freshman year to now is how she handles pressure. That was especially true in the final week of the season when Wilcox left no doubt this was, in fact, her year.

“This year she came out and became Kierra,” Bailey said.

— Will Denner

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