After dropping the fourth set against Hillsboro in last week’s WIAA Division 4 regional final, Bangor High School volleyball coach Carrie Radke looked at her team and knew everything was going to be fine.

Her team had watched a two-set lead disappear against a conference rival, and the Tigers had momentum on their side. But the Cardinals’ players didn’t sulk and were not about to let an opportunity slip through their fingers.

“They kept their composure and stayed together,” Radke said. “Before we started they were saying, ‘Let’s go, we got this.’ They were pretty pumped up and ready to go.

“I had a pretty good idea we were going to be able to win that fifth set.”

Bangor did just that, prevailing 15-9 in a decisive fifth set to win its second consecutive regional title to set up a date with another conference rival — Royall — in tonight’s sectional semifinals at Royall High School. First serve is set for 7 p.m.

Peter Thomson, La Crosse Tribune
Bangor coach Carrie Radke, left, applauds her team during a WIAA Division 4 tournament match against Independence last season. Radke’s Cardinals take a 27-6 record, along with Scenic Bluffs and regional titles, into tonight’s sectional semifinal match against Royall.

Before the season the Cardinals were picked as the team to beat in the Scenic Bluffs, due to an experienced returning core from a team that advanced all the way to the sectional finals before losing a four-set match to Seneca. Yet the Cardinals struggled in the early part of the season, dropping conference matchups against Hillsboro and Royall.

It was time for a long look in the mirror and mental adjustment.

“After those first two losses in the conference, we sat down and had a long talk about what our goals were,” Radke said. “I think we looked and saw all these teams lost all of these players and it’s going to be our year. I think some of these teams had surprised them, then we realized that couldn’t look past any team, any opponent. After that we just kind of broke things down and worked on the fundamentals again. We worked on blocking, and our defense. It’s made a difference.”

According to senior multi-sport standout Emma Wittmershaus, it ended up being a blessing in disguise.

“We all had a goal at the beginning of the season and that was to win conference,” said Wittmershaus, a UW-Milwaukee basketball recruit. “After we lost those two games, we said, ‘Ok, let’s get serious. Now we need to do whatever we can to get that goal.’ We pushed really hard, we practiced really hard, we really stuck together to get that goal.”

It took time for the Cardinals to adjust to their new rotations. Courtney Oesterle, Jaclynn Freist and Ariana Hundt went from playing exclusively in the front row to playing in the back row as well, becoming rotational players. Once the Cardinals changed to a 5-1 offensive scheme with Ashlie Lockington taking over as the main setter, the Cardinals took off. Despite starting 0-2 in league play, Bangor did not drop another Scenic Bluffs match en route to earning a share of the conference title and eventually a No. 2 regional seed with a 27-6 record. Now with another conference title and a regional title, the Cardinals can cross two of their goals off their list.

A big one looms, however, as they are determined to beat Royall tonight, win a sectional final match, then earn a state berth. Bangor understands it must get past Royall first, or nothing else matters.

“But they talk about they can’t look past Royall. Royall has an amazing team,” Radke said, “but on Tuesday they said, ‘We really want to play them again, we really want another chance at Seneca.”

Royall is the section’s No. 1 seed and is playing on its home court, but that doesn’t bother Bangor. Bangor has experienced success on the Panthers’ floor in the past, and defeated Royall in four sets back in late September.

“They just have a good atmosphere there and I feel like it’s close enough to where our fans can come and watch,” Wittmershaus said. “I also feel like it gives them more pressure to play at home, too. They just have a good program there and they always have nice officials and everything. It’s just a real good atmosphere to play in.”

Bangor is well aware that if it wins two more matches, it will earn its first state tournament berth since 1990. Radke graduated from Bangor in 1989 and played on the Cardinals’ team that lost in a sectional final, something she has not forgotten.

“I keep telling them that I was in that game where they lost the sectional finals and then the next year they went to state. I want that to be this year’s team,” Radke said. “I want to have my deja vu moment,” Radke said.

That story has been passed onto the players, and it is something they have taken to heart.

“Oh my gosh it would be so cool,” said Wittmershaus when asked what it would mean to earn a state trip with Radke as coach. “She keeps telling us this is our year to take her to state cause she didn’t get to. She told us that story, too, and I think it would be so cool for us and her. Obviously it was a long time ago the last time we went to state. So it would just be awesome for our school.”

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