Bangor's Grant Manke

Bangor's Grant Manke (35) drives the baseline in the second half of the WIAA Division 5 championship game against Chippewa Falls McDonell last season. The Cardinals are back at the Kohl Center this week.

BANGOR — At this point in the season, Grant Manke pretty much knows what to expect when he catches the basketball.

The junior forward on the Bangor High School boys team has seen defenses shift and over-shift his way as he’s put together a memorable season and become an anchor for the Cardinals. It’s a wave of hands, arms and bodies that swells toward him on the block, trying to get between him and the basket.

But Manke’s proven both in production and in leading the defending champions back to the WIAA Division 5 state tournament that simply double- or triple-teaming him can’t stymie the Cardinals (25-1). So when they start their bid to become the first Division 5 team to repeat as champs with a 10:45 a.m. semifinal Friday against Marshfield Columbus Catholic (25-2) at the Kohl Center in Madison, expect Manke to be the key cog in the machine.

Manke blossomed for the Cardinals last season, and his play around the rim helped Bangor cruise to a championship last season and rewrite the Division 5 record books in the process. He had a combined 37 points and 25 rebounds in last year’s state run.

Bangor's Jacob Pederson

Bangor coach Jacob Pederson, who was an assistant under Jordan Laufenberg when the Cardinals won last year's WIAA Division 5 state title, has his team in the state semifinals for the second year in a row.

Heading into this season — one in which Bangor featured a retooled lineup due to graduation losses and a new coach in Jacob Pederson — Manke prepared for teams that focused on slowing him down.

“I just know that teams are going to try to double-, and triple-team me, so that leaves our shooters open,” Manke said Monday after a film session with his team. “I just try to get a lot of rebounds, and try to get our team involved. If I’m getting double-teamed, pass it out, (sophomores) Zane (Langrehr) and Hank (Reader) will knock it down.”

That strategy worked through the sectional semifinal — Manke scored 24 points and Langrehr hit a winning 3-pointer to beat Blair-Taylor and avenge the team’s lone loss of the year — before Manke posted a 23-point and 17-rebound performance and Langrehr made four 3s against Southwestern to get back to the state tournament.

Pederson lauded Manke’s effort in getting position in the paint Monday, which only makes his physical gifts shine brighter.

“He is a mismatch for almost every team we have the opportunity to play against, because he is so quick off his feet to go get rebounds and has such soft hands and great footwork inside,” Pederson said Monday. “He never takes a play off. He’s embraced this and he’s been ready for the opportunity that he had.”

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Perhaps Manke’s biggest sign of growth is how he has handled being his team’s No. 1 option. His averages of 23.6 points and 13.6 rebounds per game show he’s increased his production despite other teams knowing he’s coming.

His prowess at snagging offensive rebounds and converting them into points helps Bangor build big runs and put teams away. It’ll need Manke to be that force down low against Columbus Catholic, a balanced team with four starters averaging more than 14.1 points per game.

“They’re balanced in their scoring attack, they seem to attack the basket really well. They shoot the ball from the outside, similar to the way we try to play basketball and the way we do it. They’re OK playing up-tempo, and we like to play up-tempo, too, so there could be plenty of points in the game,” Pederson said of his team’s semifinal opponent.

“We’re going to have to be disciplined in taking our angles in closeouts, and not letting them get inside the paint area as much as we can.”

Expect Manke to battle with Dons senior Bryce Fuerlinger for rebounds. Manke — who plays offensive and defensive line for Bangor’s football team — will have the size and strength advantage, but the 6-4 Fuerlinger (16.5 points, 13.3 rebounds per game) has shown he can handle his own on the glass.

Manke has been a state champion in both football and basketball, and while he broke out on the state stage last season. Now Bangor needs him to do it again.

“Being a part of Bangor’s sports program is amazing,” he said. “We’ve had a lot of good opportunities like going to state the last few years, and it’s just been special.”

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Colten Bartholomew is a reporter and columnist for River Valley Media Group. Colten is the college sports coordinator for the La Crosse Tribune.