It’s almost becoming a given at this point. If a McDonell girls team reaches the WIAA sectional semifinals in the fall or winter, it’s probably going to be facing Clayton.
The Macks vs. the Bears has turned into quite a rivalry over the last few years. The two schools have squared off in the sectional semifinals three times since 2016—twice in volleyball, once in girls basketball. The next chapter in the rivalry will be written on Thursday night, when the two play in Chetek for a spot in the girls basketball Division 5 sectional finals.
“It’s just written, it’s just that way. It’s a rivalry, (with) the volleyball and the basketball,” McDonell coach Don Cooper said. “We’ve got a rivalry going and it’s unique in high school sports. It’s great.”
From a result-driven standpoint, Clayton has been in control of the rivalry recently. They beat the Macks in the basketball sectional semis last year, and did the same in volleyball the last two seasons. Some of the McDonell seniors know that all too well.
“I’d say it gets old after losing a few times,” Macks senior Abby Opsal, a member of both the volleyball and basketball teams, said. “But it’s always good to have that option of getting revenge on them. One last go-around with them will be nice.”
The third-seeded Macks (20-5) are in the sectional semifinals—where there are only 16 teams left in each Division—by virtue of playoff wins over No. 14 seed New Auburn, No. 6 Owen-Withee and No. 2 Rib Lake last week.
The fourth-seeded Bears (22-3) have made it this far with wins over No. 13 seed Bruce, No. 5 Prentice and top-seeded and previously unbeaten Flambeau.
The rivalry will be renewed about four months after the two clashed in a thrilling five-set match in the Division 4 volleyball sectional semifinals, a contest Clayton won 3-2. The heartbreak of defeat in October hasn’t gone away completely for the Macks.
“Volleyball is always kind of sitting there in the back of my head, thinking about how our last encounter with Clayton didn’t end how we wanted it to,” Opsal said.
“There’s still a bad taste in their mouth,” Cooper said. “I think they’ll be ready.”
The two teams played each other earlier this season at McDonell in December. McDonell won that game 45-35, but both teams have come a long way since then.
“It gave us the confidence that hey, we can beat these guys. It’s a little bit in the psyche,” Cooper said of the win. “We can play and we can beat them. If we play our good game, we can beat them. Now, if they play a good game they can beat us, but I just think that the girls are confident this time through.”
The Macks have a mixture of experience and youth on their squad. While the seniors have already played through the rivalry at one point or another, the underclassmen didn’t need much of an introduction to see how intense it can get.
“I knew for the last couple years that (McDonell) has been struggling against them,” Macks freshman Maggie Craker, a contributor off the bench for the basketball team and a key part of the volleyball team, said. “I just knew that they’re going to be good.”
The Bears defeated McDonell 55-42 in the sectional semifinals last March on their way to a sectional title. The rematch will take place at the same place this year, and the Macks are expecting another exciting atmosphere.
“I definitely expect a full house. Last year when we played Clayton in Chetek, same matchup, it was packed in the gym,” Opsal said. “I know our entire school system’s rooting behind us, and Clayton always brings everyone in their town too.”
Amidst all the anticipation for Thursday’s game, McDonell’s more experienced players have kept the team grounded and focused on the task at hand.
“I think the seniors really help with that leadership going into it,” Craker said.
It has been a strong season so far for McDonell. The Macks are still riding the momentum from some big victories this winter, including sweeping Eau Claire Regis for the first time in program history. They have a chance to grab the biggest victory of them all on Thursday.
“I think right now we just have so much motivation on how the season has been going really well for us,” Opsal said.
Thursday’s winner will face either Northwood or Shell Lake with a trip to the state tournament on the line.
To book their spot in that matchup, the Macks are focusing on things they know they can do well.
“Don’t get worried about the psyche, don’t get worried about the things that might happen in the game. It’s the things that we can execute and do better than them, that’s always been the focus,” Cooper said. “We have the experience and our senior leadership, I think that gives us a little bit of an edge.”