The term “bittersweet” is inseparable from the reality of postseason sports: no matter what, someone has to lose. For Maquoketa Valley, a team that saw its state tournament hopes end at the hands of Cascade, 53-38, Monday, that “sweet” part may take a few days to set in.

After all, when you go 20-2, defeat two ranked opponents in a thrilling fashion during the regular season, and roll into the regional final on a 14-game win streak, nothing short of another win can quench the dreams that have taken months of sweat and sacrifice to actualize.

That is especially true for a team that head coach Scot Moenck considers one of the best he’s coached in his 13 years at MV.

Moenck and his Wildcats knew they would have to bring their very best to the table in the Dubuque Senior gymnasium. Another slow start would not work against the defending Class 2A state champion Cougars.

Cascade (now 22-1) also had a say in how things played out, and they flexed their might in the first half. The Wildcats had a 3-2 lead within the first minute of play before the Cougars proceeded to go on a 12-point run to make it 14-3 going into the second.

The deficit got as high as 13 before senior Maci Freiburger hit a three-pointer to put an end to MV’s early drought. At that point, Cascade was still up, 18-6, but the Wildcats started chopping into that lead with the help of senior star Sam Wall. With four minutes in the half, the Southwest Minnesota State commit led her team on a 9-0 run to enter halftime trailing just 23-17.

Two minutes into the third, MV sophomore Ella Imler got a look from long range and drained a three to make it a five-point game. Cascade juniors Skylar Dolphin and Abby Welter responded by hitting successive shots from behind the arc to bring it to 33-24.

Two minutes into the third quarter, MV sophomore Emerson Whittenbaugh nabbed a second-chance bucket. Both teams added another field goal in the final minute and a Dolphin three-pointer brought the score to 38-28 with a quarter to go.

The Cougars opened the fourth on a five-point run, and the score was 47-32 with four minutes left. Cascade senior star Nicole McDermott helped pad the lead with three trips to the line that resulted in six more points.

A Freiburger three-pointer broke up that string of scoring, but it wasn’t enough.

“We didn’t want to get down early, and we needed to hit shots. (Cascade) made plenty of them early, and we couldn’t respond,” coach Moenck said. “Later, we got back to within six and we had the ball coming out and then turned it over. You just can’t have those nights against good teams this time of year, and unfortunately we had one.”

Wall and Freiburger tied for the team lead at 11 points, with seven of Wall’s points coming in the first half, and eight of Freiburger’s in the second. Whittenbaugh finished with six points, and senior Maddy Anderegg and Imler posted three.

McDermott led the Cougars at 17 points and scored 10 in the first half. Welter picked it up in the second half to score 12 and finished with 15 total. Dolphin was also an effective closer, with 10 of her 12 total points being made in the latter portions of the game.

The heartbreak of the loss could only be eased by the bond between teammates, coaches, parents and students — a bond that was evident as fans and family members waited until the lights in the gymnasium began to turn off for their Wildcats to exit the locker room after the game.

“This team is on the Mount Rushmore of all of the teams I’ve ever coached,” Moenck said. “They’re all great kids, they’re all winners. They’re all kids that I want my kids to be like. They’re great role models and great people. Basketball is a small part of this. We’re just lucky to have them in our school and in our community.”

Wall finishes her illustrious career as Maquoketa Valley’s all-time leading scorer, as well as a role model that future Wildcats will look up to for a very long time.

“She’s an awesome kid. She’s in the gym when nobody’s watching. She’s just a winner, plain and simple,” Moenck said.

An understandably emotional Wall collected herself long enough to thank everyone that played a part in her journey, as well as to offer her take on what the program will look like without her and her fellow seniors.

“I love everything about this team and this year. My coaches, my teammates, the support from the community. It was great, and we just came up short, really,” Wall said. “They have a bright future next year. We started two sophomores, so obviously there’s great potential in their leadership. We also had seven freshmen, so hopefully they see how far hard work can get you.”