JANESVILLE — Sun Prairie knew it would see Verona again, and this time it didn’t flinch.
The Cardinals defeated the Wildcats in a three-set nail-biter to capture their second consecutive Big Eight Conference Tournament championship Saturday at Janesville Parker High School.
Sun Prairie entered play as the No. 2 seed after falling 3-1 to Verona, the No. 1 seed, during the regular season as the Wildcats snapped the Cardinals’ string of three-straight Big Eight titles.
Sun Prairie needed only two sets to win its semifinal game, downing Madison Memorial 25-19 and 25-21. Meanwhile, it took top-seeded Verona three sets to hold off Janesville Parker, 25-21, 24-26, 15-13.
“It was funny watching the girls because they really wanted Verona to win that game,” said Sun Prairie head coach T.J. Rantala. “They definitely wanted that rematch.”
The Cardinals won the first set 25-19, but then dropped a spine-tingling 26-28 decision in the second set to force a third game.
“We came out in the first set and just were playing light’s out, I think we very much surprised Verona with our play. But the second set was back-and-forth; there were few times that the differential was more than two points,” said Rantala. “Anytime you go into extra points it’s a hard-fought win or a hard-fought loss.”
Sun Prairie then got its revenge winning the decisive third set, 15-9, capturing its third Big Eight Tournament title in four years.
“Inside the huddle after losing that second set they all said, ‘It’s alright, we got this,’” Rantala said.
A six-point run by server Hailey Winter moved Sun Prairie to within a single point of the championship.
“She was getting (Verona) out of system, which is exactly what she needed to do,” said Rantala of the junior.
Sun Prairie opened the tournament Saturday morning with a 25-4, 25-8 walloping of Madison West before 2-0 wins over Janesville Craig (25-11, 25-15), Beloit Memorial (25-11, 25-21) and Parker (25-16, 25-20) followed, moving the Cardinals into the semifinals where they held off Memorial.
“We hadn’t seen them in a really long time, since the second conference match of the season. They are a very improved team,” Rantala said.
Senior outside hitter K.J. McNabb had a team-high 50 kills while adding 29 digs on the day. Meanwhile, junior
Serving also was a big part of Saturday as Sun Prairie recorded a remarkable 41 service aces. Senior middle hitter Kirsten Anderson added 29 kills, and junior outside hitter Payton Addink had 27.
Addink had a team-leading 18 service aces, including 11 against Madison West.
“We are a strong serving team,” said Rantala, whose team served at a 93% clip. “Getting teams out of system is key to winning games, so I was very pleased with our serving on the day.”
Meanwhile, junior setter Josie Halbleib had 122 assists, junior libero Emily Mickelson made 43 digs, and junior outside hitter Maggie Allaman and Anderson shared the team lead with 6.5 blocks apiece.
Sun Prairie (37-7) begins its quest to return to the WIAA State Tournament Thursday. As the No. 3 seed, the Cardinals host No. 14 Madison West, a team it defeated twice by lopsided scores, in a Division 1 regional semifinal.
“Now it’s all about getting four wins,” said Rantala, referring to WIAA regional and sectional play that begins Thursday. “It’s everybody 0-0 and all we have to worry about is Madison West, it doesn’t matter if it’s the third time we’ve seen them in a week.”
A win over West would move Sun Prairie into the regional championship game against either No. 6 Madison Memorial or No. 11 Baraboo. The game would be played at the higher seed Saturday at 7 p.m.
Sun Prairie Fieldhouse will be the host site of one of the eight Division 1 sectionals. The sectional final will be held on Saturday, Nov. 2 at 7 p.m.