Ashley Henry (copy)

Columbus' Ashley Henry returns to a loaded Cardinals team that has high expectations for the season. 

COLUMBUS — The start of the 2016-17 season wasn’t all that encouraging for the Columbus girls basketball team, but the end showed a lot of promise.

A season that got off to a 2-6 start ended with a run to the WIAA Division 3 sectional semifinals. The Cardinals hope that momentum has carried through the offseason and will propel them toward a push for a Capitol North Conference championship.

“We set the bar pretty high from last year’s tournament run,” said Columbus head coach Tim Dworak, whose team finished last year at 13-13 and 6-4 in the Capitol North. “I really want to improve on our regular-season record and our conference overall standings. I want to compete for a top spot in the conference. I think we have a team that can really do that this year.”

The Cardinals, who dropped a 53-50 decision to Mayville in the season opener, lost two key members in Hannah Boettcher and Brynn Hesselberg. Boettcher averaged 9.8 points, 3.7 rebounds, 3.2 assists and two steals a game while Hesselberg averaged 7.8 points and 3 rebounds.

“Filling those scoring roles,” Dworak said. “It’s going to be an interesting year to see how everyone fits in their roles as a team. I think Kady Meyers can make a pretty big impact stepping in. She started our game against Mayville for us. Then there’s a couple other people that can make some big contributions down the road.

“We’ve got a couple freshmen (Molly Kahl and Jordan Link) that are very, very talented that can step up. They know the game very well. They’ve just got to get acclimated to the varsity level. Then start making an impact. Then Bree Selk started (against Mayville). She played very well within herself, and really did what she was supposed to do on offense and defense.”

The Cardinals do return some experience in Ashley Henry, Erica Patrick and Carlie Brunell. Henry, a 6-foot-1 center, put up 9.1 points, seven rebounds and three blocks a game last year. Patrick averaged 8.1 points and 3.1 rebounds a game, while Brunell scored 5.5 points and had 4.3 rebounds per outing.

“Those three really bring a lot of experience back and this is Ashley’s fourth year as a starter for me,” Dworak said. “This is Erica’s third year on varsity and Carlie moved up halfway through her sophomore year. They’ve got a lot of varsity experience.

“What I’m looking from them is to increase their production from last year offensively and defensively on both of those ends. Then I want them to also increase their roles as leaders on the team, and take a little bit of a role of leadership on the court.”

All three of those players will be crucial components in helping the Cardinals compete with Lakeside Lutheran, Poynette, Lodi and Luther Prep.

“I think the conference is not as solidified as it used to be in previous years,” Dworak said.

The Pumas and Warriors shared the Capitol North crown with 8-2 records before both were knocked out in the Division 3 regional semifinals.

The Warriors return seniors Kalies Birkholz and Ashley Fritz and junior Kaylyn Shadoski, all of whom can score on a whim. Birkholz led the team with 16 points in the 62-45 win over New Berlin West last Friday. Fritz finished with 13 points and Shadoski had 12 as well.

The Pumas lost seven players to graduation, including their two most productive in Destiny Morter, who led the team with 15.2 points, five rebounds and 3.3 assists a game, and Paige Byington (9.7, 3.7, 2.5). Mandy Wierzba is the only senior on this year’s Poynette team.

But unlike last season, Dworak said the Cardinals are ready out of the gates to take on any challengers.

“We let some games get by us that we probably should’ve won,” he said, “and maybe had a chance to win a conference championship last year or tie with Lakeside Lutheran. We kind of let those things slip through our fingers.

“That’s something we’ve got to prepare for and try to prevent from happening this year.”

Follow Mark on Twitter @mmcmull2.

Mark McMullen is currently a sports reporter for the Daily Citizen. He can be reached by email at mmcmullen@wiscnews.com or by phone at 920-356-6754. Can also follow him on Twitter at @mmcmull2.