Cashton volleyball's stellar run ends with sectional final loss to Royall

Cashton’s Faith Hemmersbach and Adelynn Hyatt (center) and Kati Steinhoff and Karolyn Kirking (right) share a final embrace during the awards presentation following the Eagles’ 3-1 loss to Royall Tuesday night. Herald photos by Nate Beier.

Cashton’s Adelynn Hyatt (right) and Faith Hemmersbach (left) join in celebration after a block kill against Riverdale in Tuesday’s sectional semifinal contest at La Crosse Central.

Luke Lukaszewski’s first season as Cashton’s head varsity volleyball coach saw the Eagles reach heights uncommon for the program that brought them within reach of a historic win.

In the end, they fell agonizingly short of securing the first state tournament berth in program history, instead watching as conference rival Royall celebrated its first-ever trip to state.

The Panthers (19-2) overcame a first-set loss and some anxious moments late in the second set to hold off Cashton (13-5) 17-25, 30-28, 25-16, 25-15 in a Division 2 sectional final Tuesday, April 13 at La Crosse Central High School in La Crosse.

Coming off their first regional title since 2015 the prior Saturday, the Eagles were awarded the No. 3 seed in their sectional. Royall drew the No. 1 seed, Riverdale the No. 2 seed and Belleville the No. 4 seed.

Cashton started its evening off with a bang, playing some of its best volleyball of the season and sweeping Riverdale 27-25, 25-18, 25-17 in the sectional semifinals to head to the program’s first sectional final since 2005.

Royall took care of business with a 25-18, 25-13, 17-25, 25-14 win in its semifinal match against Belleville to set up the all-Scenic Bluffs sectional final clash.

Despite attendance limitations due to the ongoing pandemic, both teams brought raucous contingents of fans (and lively benches) along that gave the match an atmosphere that has naturally been missing from most high school sporting events during the age of COVID-19.

To start the match, the Eagles picked up right where they left off against Riverdale with an extremely crisp performance in the opening set.

Cashton busted out to an early 5-1 lead and never really looked back, leading by as much as seven and never letting the Panthers seriously threaten them. The Eagles won 25-17 in a set where they never once trailed for the early advantage in the match.

Royall did finally appear to start to settle in late in the first set and that continued into the second. In a reversal of the first, the Panthers seized control of the set en route to a 14-8 lead that drew a Cashton timeout.

The Eagles then began their comeback, ripping off an 8-2 run to tie it at 16-16 as Royall started to play tighter, misplay returns and try and force kills into tight spaces. The Panthers did enough to keep Cashton from pulling ahead temporarily, but the Eagles eventually did nab their first lead of the set at 21-20.

After going down 22-20, Royall won the next four points to bring up a couple set-point opportunities at 24-22. On the first, Cashton sophomore middle hitter Taylor Bayer smacked down an emphatic block to put the Eagles back on serve. Royall was unable to handle an Adelynn Hyatt spike and the match was suddenly tied back up at 24-24.

On the next point, Hyatt found open floor and gently tapped the ball in for a 25-24 lead that gave Cashton a set point. Suddenly, the gravity of the moment appeared to affect both teams.

The Eagles sent an attack long, Royall dumped a serve into the middle of the net, Cashton sent another attack long on set point and then misplayed a return to give the Panthers a 27-26 lead.

Cashton sophomore outside hitter Braylee Hyatt came up with a critical kill to keep the set going, and Royall senior outside hitter Emma Gruen repaid in kind with a kill when the Eagles led 28-27 to knot the set once more at 28-28.

The next two points will likely haunt Cashton.

Royall junior outside hitter Maycie Vierck sent in a serve that was misplayed by the Eagles and gifted the Panthers another set point. This one would not be squandered, as Vierck served up an ace and Royall took a wildly entertaining set 30-28.

“Anytime you stay that close or you make that charge to come back and then fall short, it’s a challenge to come back from,” Lukaszewski said of dropping the second set. “You put so much effort and so much energy into that to try and win and then you fall short, it takes a little bit of wind out of your sail.”

We’ll never know what would’ve happened if the Eagles closed out the second for a 2-0 set lead in the match. The Panthers had looked shaky up to that point, and the three set points that slipped away are missed opportunities that Cashton players, coaches and fans alike will surely all rue.

Getting that set win under their belts seemed to settle the Royall players down, as they cruised to a 25-16 win in a third set where they never trailed.

To their credit, the Eagles did not simply fold from that point forward. They traded leads in a competitive start to the fourth set and led as late as 11-10. However, the Panthers put the throttle down the rest of the way with a 15-4 run on their way to a 25-15 victory to close out the match and punch their ticket to state.

“They played better than we did, that’s about it,” Lukaszewski said. “They’ve got great hitters. It’s hard to keep up with them. We did our best to slow them down but, in the end, they just outlasted us.”

As is so often the case for a team that makes it this deep into the playoffs, it was a painful exit to end an otherwise stellar season. The loss will obviously be a bitter pill for Cashton to swallow, but it does little to detract from all the team accomplished over the last month and a half.

“We far exceeded most people’s expectations. They didn’t think, with the number of people that we lost last year, we’d be able to make this kind of run,” Lukaszewski said. “I believed in the girls from day one and they finally caught up with me about midseason. We played well; we just came up a few points short on the scoreboard tonight.”

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