WEST SALEM — If you qualify for a state tournament, one thing is for sure: You’re in it to win it!
That’s what teams are expected to say, at least. And most do, especially since the “we’re just happy to be here” approach doesn’t exactly inspire optimism with championships in the balance.
But that passive mentality doesn’t apply to West Salem/Bangor’s co-op boys hockey team. The Panthers are not satisfied with their sectional title by itself, nor are they embellishing their goals for this weekend’s WIAA state tournament. Their quest for a championship begins tonight with a 7:15 quarterfinal against No. 2 Wausau West at the Alliant Center in Madison.
And they’re not just along for the ride.
“We have a lot of confidence right now,” West Salem/Bangor junior Joseph Oldendorf said. “We feel like if we go down there and play our game, we might be able to bring something home.”
If that happens, most wouldn’t see it coming.
The Panthers (22-3-1) kicked off their season with 13 consecutive victories, and produced a 17-1-1 record before losing two of their final four regular-season games. But they never cracked the Wisconsin Prep Hockey Top Ten poll, even though five ranked teams — including No. 10 Superior (10-12-2) — entered their respective sectional tournaments last week with fewer wins and more losses than West Salem/Bangor.
How does that happen?
“Our schedule is what it is,” said West Salem/Bangor coach Eric Borre, whose team played the first half of its regular-season schedule against opponents with a combined winning percentage of .470.
“We’re kind of handcuffed by where we’re at in the state, and that’s not a knock on our state. We don’t have the luxury of a Wausau West, which is a little more centrally located and can get to Hudson in the same time it can get to Green Bay. If we were going to do that, that’s obviously a bit of a longer trip.”
But the Panthers have done their best to fight the reality of their location.
They scheduled and tied Stevens Point — a 17-time state-tournament qualifier, which took Wausau West to overtime in its sectional final — and battled in close losses against Baldwin-Woodville, Antigo and New Richmond, each of which won at least 17 games this season.
The Panthers are definitely underdogs, but they’re battle tested. And they’re hungry.
“We try to schedule games that are challenging to our kids,” Borre said. “You want to schedule as tough an out-of-area schedule as you can so you’re ready for games like we have against Wausau West (tonight). Sometimes it works out where you get those teams on the schedule and sometimes it doesn’t.
“But that doesn’t take away from the fact that we’re one of the eight teams there. We’re not going to come in thinking that anyone needs to owe us any recognition. We’re going to let our play speak for itself, and if we show up the way we’re capable of, then we’ll have a good chance.”