Down two games to one with their backs to the wall in the WIAA Division 1 sectional championship match the Sun Prairie volleyball team was challenged by their head coach T.J. Rantala.
“The word we used was 'grit,' show some grit,” she said. “We know that things aren’t going to be easy and you have to dig down deep.”
The third-seeded and 12th-ranked Cardinals rallied back from that 2-1 deficit, earning decisions of 25-23 and 15-8 to eliminate top-seeded and 10th-ranked Waunakee while punching their ticket to the state tournament for the second year in a row and fifth time since 2012.
“It was pretty much, ‘we can’t give up,’” said senior middle blocker Kirsten Anderson, who had a team-high 6.5 blocks. “We had nothing to lose, we’re the three-seed and they’re the one-seed, and we had to prove something and we just had to fight for every ball.”
In their third sectional finals meeting in as many years, Sun Prairie and Waunakee put on a display worthy of an instant classic Saturday night at Sun Prairie Fieldhouse.
“In a match like that where it was tight the entire time, you just have to show that grit and determination. That’s what they did. This was a total team effort,” said Rantala.
After surviving a 25-23 fourth set, the Cardinals (41-7) pulled ahead 8-7 in the fifth set when the Warriors hit a return into the net. Haley Winter then went to the service line and all the junior did was serve out the match, sending Sun Prairie and its fans into a wild celebration.
“She had ice running through her veins,” Rantala said of Winter. “She hit every serve that I wanted her to hit; we had a conversation about not necessarily serving for aces, we’ve got to score points with our defense.”
Sun Prairie held off Waunakee in the first set 26-24, setting a tone for what would be a back-and-forth sectional final.
The Warriors, behind four Milla Malik kills, earned a 25-23 set-two decision.
“Waunakee served us tough and at times they served us off the court, and played just scrappy defense; they’re so fundamentally-sound and they’re well-coached and they gave us a battle,” said Rantala.
Waunakee (41-8) took its first lead of the night winning the third set, 26-24, moving within a game of reaching its first state tournament since 2017.
“We kind of had that winner’s mentality, we knew we had to play not to lose and play to win,” said junior outside hitter Payton Addink, who had a team-high three aces. “We just held onto each other as teammates.”
Then momentum swung in Sun Prairie’s favor, thanks to the play of its tallest three players - Anderson and juniors Josie Halbleib and Maggie Allamen. All standing 5-foot-10 or 5-11, the trio took over at the net with key blocks on Malik and 6-footers Jocelyn Meinholz and Kaitlin Jordan.
“Josie and I were just connecting with blocks tonight and closing and making sure to stay close to Malik, she’s an amazing outside hitter,” said Anderson.
Added Halbleib: “They have a really good offense so it really got our team going having that momentum shift in the game.”
“It was key getting our middles more involved, both Kirsten and Maggie were difference makers,” said Rantala. “That was huge for us.”
An Allaman kill followed by consecutive service aces by senior K.J. McNabb gave the Cardinals a 24-21 lead in the fourth set. After the Warriors pulled within 24-23 with a side-out, a service error gave Sun Prairie the 25-23 victory to set up the decisive fifth set.
“We knew we couldn’t play scared,” said Halbleib. “Our mentality was like if we lost a point, next ball; we played with with the approach of nothing hits the floor.”
Never was the score more than two points in the fifth set, that is until Sun Prairie’s match-deciding run.
In that fifth set alone junior defensive specialist Emily Mickelson made eight digs, including six along on hammer-type hits by Malik.
“I told the team, ‘this is our time, we’ve got this, there’s no giving up now,’” said Mickelson. “There was just something in us that made us play our A-game. We were more positive that fifth set than we ever were. It was so crazy, whether we were down 9-8 or whatever, we were still able to be positive and be there for each other.”
“Emily is a competitive kid, she wants to win and she pushes herself in every aspect of her life. She wasn’t going to let that ball hit the floor,” said Rantala of Mickelson.
Mickelson finished with 33 digs, McNabb had 16 kills and Halbleib handed out 41 assists.
Malik, a University of Buffalo recruit, had a match-high 27 kills.
RETURNING TO STATE … TO WIN IT
Addink, Anderson and Halbleib all agreed, the Cardinals aren’t just going to Green Bay to compete, they’re going there to win the program’s first state championship.
“Yes we are, for sure,” said Addink.
“We’re going back to win,” said Anderson.
“Yes we are,” said Halbleib, who had a team-high 23 assists in last year’s state quarterfinal loss to Oconomowoc. “I’m really excited.
State will be held once again at the Resch Center in Green Bay Thursday through Saturday.
Sun Prairie received the No. 8 seed and will play No. 1 Hartland Arrowhead in Thursday's Division 1 quarterfinals at 7 p.m.
The Division 1 field also includes River Falls, Appleton North, Oconomowoc, Union Grove and Kettle Moraine and two-time defending champion Burlington.
The Division 1 championship game is Saturday at 7:30 p.m.