On Thursday, Sept. 23, the Sun Prairie volleyball team made the trip down to Janesville to take on the Craig Cougars. Coming off of a 3-0 win over Madison East earlier in the week, the Cardinals were riding high with a 2-1 record in conference. That momentum burned out quickly, however. While the Cardinals won the first set, 28-26, they’d lose the next three 17-25, 9-25, 21-25 to slip to 2-2 in conference.
As she typically does, middle hitter Lauren Adams had a quick scoring start to the first set. Teams never seem to be ready for the 5’10” junior to leap up and swat the ball down so quickly. She buried a few kills while senior outside hitter Kendall Weisensel served up a couple of aces. The Cardinals were off to a quick 5-1 lead.
“Early, our communication was good,” Sun Prairie co-head coach Alivia Holman said. “We hit the spots that we knew were open and did what we worked on in practice.”
From there, Craig’s dynamic duo of McKaylie Justman and Britten Bertagnoli helped dig the Cougars out of that hole. Justman was a menace on the outside and hit the hardest ball in the gym that night. Bertagnoli did her damage both outside and inside, a constant wildcard the Cardinals struggled to deal with.
As Craig mounted its comeback, Weisensel kept the Cardinals afloat. She was outstanding on the pins, hammering kills past the Cougar defense. Her service skills came in handy again as she served up another ace. But, with the score sitting at a 20-16 advantage for Sun Prairie, the wheels started to fall off.
Miscommunication plagued the Cardinals as balls dropped to the floor between players and hits went crashing into the net. Craig tied the game at 21 and forced a Sun Prairie timeout.
Luckily for Sun Prairie, it was Craig’s turn to make some mistakes. With Sun Prairie trailing 24-25, the Cougars sent three kill attempts sailing long, interrupted only by the Cardinals serving one into the net. Senior Tyra Anderson iced the match with an ace as Sun Prairie escaped with a 28-26 win.
The seeds of miscommunication and disjointed play had been set, however, and the Cardinals would have to reap what they sowed.
Craig started the next set on a 9-1 run. Adams was the sole point, a solo block in the middle. But the rest of her teammates looked lost. The Cardinals scrambled around the court, two or three of them swarming to every ball instead of communicating. Craig’s Justman didn’t make things any easier, either, as she continued to hammer kill attempts and even scored on a block.
Some inspired play from Anderson and senior outside hitter Sienna Roling helped the Cardinals battle back, but the mental mistakes would strike again. Trailing 13-9, the Cardinals would gift Craig six consecutive points. Kill attempts were sailing long out of bounds or directly into the net. When the Cardinals weren’t missing offensively, the defense would allow something silly to hit the floor. Craig’s lead continued to build. Bertagnoli put the nail in the coffin with a thunderous kill up the middle, solidifying a 25-17 win to even the match at one set each.
“We struggled to catch up,” Holman said. “We would score, but we really needed that fire from the beginning to win sets. Things kind of teetered off towards the end.”
The Cardinals didn’t give up, though. They had a really nice start to the third set, playing on their strengths. Sun Prairie was the taller team and used that, getting some nice blocks and deflections early to quiet the Cougar attack. After a Craig hit sailed out of bounds, the Cardinals were primed to take a lead, now trailing only 7-8. Instead, the exact opposite happened.
Craig would score 17 of the next 19 points as they steamrolled their way to a 25-9 victory. Sure, the Cardinals gifted the Cougars plenty of freebies with hits into the net and long kill attempts, but Justman was the real culprit. She piled up four kills and made life incredibly difficult for the Sun Prairie back row. Craig had a 2-1 lead and all the momentum in the world.
Even after the poor showing in the third set, the Cardinals never showed signs of quitting. Weisensel delivered a nice kill to kick things off and the battle was on. It looked like the front row believed in themselves again as junior Avree Antony and Schellpfeffer jumped up to combine for a block. The Cardinals established an early 8-5 lead.
Unfortunately, the Cardinals couldn’t get out of their own way. Disjointed play struck again as Sun Prairie was just giving the Cougars points. Three straight errors from the Sun Prairie side would give Craig a 16-15 lead.
“We’re still kind of figuring it out,” Holman said of the occasional disjointed play from her team. “We don’t have a set lineup. So, we’re still figuring out who works well together and what each individual player brings to the court.”
Down but not out, Antony would fire off a couple of quick kills in the push for the lead. Late in this one, it looked like the match would go for five sets. The Cardinals looked great in the front row as Antony, Adams, and Weisensel were making life hard on the Craig defense. Enter: Justman.
With her Cougars trailing 19-21, she got three quick kills, coupled with an ace from Lily Campbell, to establish a 23-21 lead. After the Cardinals let another playable ball drop to the hardwood, Campbell fired another ace to finish the Cardinals off. The comeback attempt was squashed as Sun Prairie lost the set, 21-25, and the match, 3-1.
Weisensel led the team in kills with 12. Senior libero Maddie Wirtz-Olsen led the way in digs with 22 while Antony turned in an impressive eight blocks. Schellpfeffer led in assists with 27 and Weisensel was tops in aces with four.
Conference play will continue next week for the Cardinals with two home games as they will host Beloit Memorial on Tuesday, Sept. 28 and Janesville Parker Thursday, Sept. 30. The Tuesday game is Youth Night and Thursday’s game is a Pink Out, raising funds for breast cancer research.