It wasn’t just that its defense was stellar — it was.
It wasn’t just that it responded to each challenge No. 9 UW-Whitewater presented — it did.
It wasn’t just that it ended each set with runs that demoralized its opponent — it did that, too.
No, the impressive thing was the UW-La Crosse volleyball team made it look easy. The Eagles swept the visiting Warhawks 25-23, 25-15, 25-19 to clinch at least a share of their third consecutive WIAC regular-season championship on Wednesday in front of 350 people at Mitchell Hall.
The win, marking the program’s 12th conference title, also netted the team the No. 1 seed in next week’s WIAC championship tournament. The Eagles (18-6, 6-0 WIAC) have one more WIAC contest left — a home tilt against Stevens Point at 2 p.m. Saturday — but they hold the head-to-head tiebreaker over both Whitewater (20-5, 5-1) and Eau Claire (14-10, 5-1).
While her team made quick work of the Warhawks, sweeping them in an efficient 1 hour and 20 minutes, UW-L first-year coach Amber Dunn said the Eagles used the week off prior to the match to prepare for a tough test.
“Credit to Whitewater, they’re incredible,” Dunn said. “They’re very good, they’re very strong. Just like any team, we have our strengths and weaknesses. I think we utilized our strengths to their weaknesses (Wednesday).”
One of those weaknesses for Whitewater was at the net. UW-L controlled the net with proficiency, racking up 10 blocks and 37 kills. Senior middle blocker Jessica Jablonski acted as a brick wall above the net, as she tallied a solo block and five block assists to go with her four kills.
The Eagles’ defense, especially in key moments, swung the momentum in their favor. In the first set, after UW-L had allowed a 19-9 lead fall to a 23-22 deficit, it stiffened defensively and scored the final three points, capping the run with a combo block by sophomore Kathryn Maas and freshman Laine Hoeffel.
Maas and Hoeffel tallied back-to-back kills near the end of the second set — the most dominant for the Eagles — to kick off a 5-0 run to take a two-set lead. After falling behind 11-7 in the third, UW-L responded after a timeout to tie it at 12, and after going back-and-forth for seven points, closed the match on a 6-0 tear. Jablonski had two block assists and a kill in that key stretch.
“That was the most important part, our teammates picked each other up,” Jablonski said. “I’m so proud of how we played, and how everyone pushed through.
“This team can be really gritty, and that’s really cool to see.”
Defense may have led the charge, but UW-L’s balance on offense put Whitewater on its heels. Senior Stephanie Henk paced the team with 10 kills and 11 digs — her ninth double-double of the year — but any time the Warhawks focused too much on her, another Eagles hitter made them pay.
Five UW-L players outside of Henk finished with four or more kills: Marisa Johnson (7), Maas (6), Hoeffel (5), Maddie Entinger (4), and Jablonski (4).
It started early for the Eagles, going up 10-2 in short order in the first set.
“To start off these intense games strong is essential,” Henk said. “For us to go on that long run, it just started off the momentum fantastic and it just up and up from there.”
UW-L’s only real trouble spot also came in that first set. The Warhawks used a shorter, more lofted serve that the Eagles misplayed multiple times, allowing Whitewater to mount its comeback. But Henk said once the team adjusted to that, it was smooth sailing.
“We got a little confused, but we said, ‘No, this can’t happen again. We’ve just got to be ballsy and go after everything,’” Henk said.
With one roadblock in their way to an undefeated conference season and the outright title, Jablonski believes the Eagles are poised for a deep playoff run.
“That was the best we’ve played, and it’s an incredible feeling,” Jablonski said. “I don’t want to be in the NCAA tournament with any other team. This program’s amazing, and we’ve come so far in the past four years. To be a senior and to be a part of this team with these girls … I don’t even have words.”
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.
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.”
For too long, football was who Ryan Leaf was.
After a dazzling career at Washington State University where he led the Cougars to the Rose Bowl, Leaf was drafted No. 2 overall in the 1998 NFL draft. A short, unsuccessful career and multiple surgeries later, Leaf found himself addicted to opioid painkillers and on a path to nowhere.
It took him years, but Leaf has turned his life around and now uses his story as an example of how fellow addicts and all people can make positive choices after seeking and accepting help.
It’s an unfair reality of Leaf’s story that his failures as a professional football player is for which he’s most known. He travels across the country now as an ambassador for a rehabilitation community and his own nonprofit foundation, advocating for people suffering from addiction, but his inability to pan out as an NFL quarterback will always follow him.
Leaf has every reason to hate football. Shame and ridicule from his career, along with a culture of painkiller abuse in the NFL, undoubtedly factored into the poor choices Leaf made after he retired. But he could only use that as a crutch for so long, he says, and he still has passion for the game that he says gave him his life.
“I love football. It’s an amazing game,” Leaf said. “And I really disliked it for a long time. I wasn’t taking accountability for my choices and blaming it for things I did.
“It brings people together to be teammates, and turns people into leaders.”
Leaf’s career was destined to be compared to his draft classmate, Peyton Manning, from the moment the two finished their collegiate careers and started the NFL draft process. While Manning went on to become one of the best quarterbacks in NFL history, Leaf suffered personal and legal struggles.
Now, Leaf’s name is synonymous with “bust” — a hyped player who didn’t meet expectations. For a long time, that label hurt Leaf. Despite many quarterbacks and other players being drafted high and never finding success after him, Leaf is still the benchmark.
He understands why.
“One, who I was drafted with, Peyton Manning, possibly the best to ever to do it, and it was between me and him that whole draft season. I think people who made that choice took their victory lap when I struggled,” Leaf said.
“Second, it was the birth of the internet and quarterback is most important position in any sport. So every April when the draft comes around, analysts have to make comparisons, my name is a bit of a poster child.”
All these years later, though, Leaf has said in multiple interviews he doesn’t believe he was meant to be an NFL quarterback. He believes where he is now, with a loving wife and newborn son, is where he’s meant to be.
“My identity was wrapped around that I was a football player, and then a failed football player. I didn’t know who Ryan was. But going to prison, and struggling like did, and the work I do now, I’ve been able to figure out my identity,” Leaf said.
“Now, with my little boy, he’s doesn’t care at all that I was in the NFL. I’m just the big guy that carries him around.”