Senior Claire Chaussee has the Sun Prairie girls volleyball team in a familiar position.
The Cardinals are playing into late October with the dream of a state championship just a few giant steps away.
“This team definitely has what it takes to win the state title,” said Chaussee, a 6-foot outside hitter who has committed to play next year at the University of Louisville.
“One thing that we say this year is ‘one heart, one mission,’ and our mission is to be holding that trophy at the end of the season,” said Chaussee, last year’s Big Eight Conference Player of the Year and a first-team all-state pick.
According to coach T.J. Rantala, this group hasn’t been too busy worrying about long-term aspirations; instead, it all has been about the next opponent.
“We just have to focus on it as one step at a time,” Rantala said. “All along, we’ve always talked about our goal of going 1-0 every night.”
For these Cardinals, that means a rematch at rival Middleton in a WIAA Division 1 sectional semifinal at 5 p.m. Thursday.
The winner will meet Verona or Waunakee at 7 p.m. Saturday in Baraboo to decide which team advances to the state tournament, starting Thursday, Nov. 2, at the Resch Center in Ashwaubenon.
Sun Prairie and Middleton both finished with 8-1 Big Eight records, joining Verona in a three-way tie atop the league. Sun Prairie swept Middleton during the teams’ regular-season meeting, and Middleton has been slowed by late-season injuries.
But Chaussee is taking nothing for granted.
“We need to go in pretending like we haven’t played them before,” Chaussee said. “They want exactly what we want, and we just can’t let up. We’ve been in this position before, so hopefully that will help.”
Last fall, the Cardinals made it to the semifinal round at state before falling to Neenah in three tight sets, 25-18, 25-23, 25-21.
“Anytime you suffer a loss like that, it leaves a sour taste in your mouth,” Rantala said. “But that has given these kids a ton of experience. They’ve been pushing themselves day in and day out to achieve more this season.”
It doesn’t hurt to have one of the strongest players in the state leading the way.
“Claire just has a complete passion for volleyball,” Rantala said. “She’s happiest when she’s on the court, competing.
“A lot of things come easy to her, but she also pushes to be better all the time. In four years we’ve seen her grow so, so much.”
Chaussee will leave the school as the all-time leader in kills, with 1,841 heading into Thursday’s contest. She broke the record of her sister, Emily, who notched 1,513 kills as a Cardinal, and is currently a senior on the Edgewood College team.
“I came here right after my sister left, so I chose her jersey number,” Chaussee said. “But I definitely had to work hard to get where I am today. This year, being a captain, I really had to come out and be a communicator for the team.”
“She has developed into a great leader and has really worked at her defense and serve-receive over the past few years,” Rantala said. “It’s been a challenge because everybody knows who she is. Everybody is going to set up a big block on her, and she’s had to manage that.”
Despite that extra attention, Chaussee has scored more than 500 kills in each of the past two seasons, along with 233 digs and 77 aces this year alone.
“I’ll just miss her as a kid, I can’t say enough positive things about her,” Rantala said. “She just has this enthusiasm for life, which is really fun. I look at my own daughter and I say ‘gosh, it would be nice if you turned out to be a good kid like that.’”
Chaussee believes the adversity her players have faced will help them overcome any obstacles over the next few weeks.
“Not only do we have the talent, but our chemistry on and off the court is great,” Chaussee said. “Everyone on the team is happy and cheering for every point, even the people on the bench. I feel like you don’t see that at most places.”
And what would a state title mean to her?
“I couldn’t even describe the feeling of winning the state championship,” she said. “I would probably cry.”