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Volleyball: Cats lower the boom

Wildcats Elise Banitt (1) and Sarah Langlois (13) go up for a block in the Cats' 3-0 victory over Eau Claire North Thursday night, Oct. 12, at the high school. Bob Burrows / RiverTown Multimedia 1 / 2
River Falls sophomore Halle Olson winds up for one of her team-leading 18 kills in the Wildcat volleyball team's Big Rivers Conference title-clinching victory over Eau Claire North Thursday, Oct. 12, in River Falls. The Cats earned the No. 1 seed in their sectional and will host a regional final this Saturday, Oct. 21, at 7 p.m. at the high school. Bob Burrows / RiverTown Multimedia 2 / 2

Thursday, Oct. 12, was a special night for the Wildcat volleyball team for a lot of reasons.

In addition to honoring their four seniors—Izzy Barr, Elise Banitt, Sam Krueger and Marissa Stockman—the Cats were playing for their second straight Big Rivers Conference title, on their home court, with a chance to complete the first undefeated season in school history.

Check, check, and check.

After recognizing the seniors in a pregame ceremony, the Cats took care of the Huskies in three sets—25-15, 25-18, 25-23—to defend their BRC title while improving to 38-0 on the year.

Head coach Sara Kealy said the Cats were excited to play for the conference title at home this season after clinching it last year on the road.

"The crowd last Thursday was the best I have seen for a high school volleyball match in the eight years I have been here," she said. "We are so appreciative to all those that came out to support us that night."

The match gained added drama the day before when the Wildcats and Huskies were awarded the top two seeds in the 14-team sectional bracket.

"We were also excited to get to play against the No. 2 seed in our section because we knew it would be a more competitive match and it played out as I expected," Kealy said. "Eau Claire North does some nice things but player-for-player is outmatched against us. I thought they played tough and competed from start to finish. Hopefully, with our one and two seeds we will get to see them again down the road."

Sophomore Halle Olson led the Wildcat offense with 18 kills and sophomore Emily Banitt had 14 while Stockman, a senior transfer from Hastings, registered 11 kills while hitting a team-high .562.

"Marissa is a newbie to River Falls although she had three years of varsity experience at Hastings," Kealy noted. "She is known for her big swings at the net. It is hard to transition to a new school, especially your senior year, and I am proud of her for the effort she has put forth in making the transition go smoothly."

Sisters Emily and Elise Banitt finished with 12 digs each on the night while Elise also drilled three service aces.

"She is the one player in the senior class that can do everything well," Kealy said about the senior Elise. "Elise is also a quiet leader. She shows up every day and works hard setting an example for everyone."

Barr dished out 43 set assists on her senior night while Krueger was all over the floor passing at a 1.93 clip.

"Izzy is our leader and has been since day one of her freshman year," Kealy said. "Her technical skill makes her one of the best high school setters in the state, but her leadership skills are also what make everyone around her better.

"Sam makes plays look easy because of her amazing athleticism," the coach added about Krueger. "What I love most about Sam is that she knows when to compete and when to not take herself too serious. She has good balance and her teammates respect her for that."

Kealy said the team was disappointed that freshman starter Anna Wolk missed the title-clinching victory with an illness, but junior Sarah Langlois stepped in and contributed valuable minutes to the win, leading the team with two solo blocks.

"Anna has been a big part of our offense this season and to not have her playing was disappointing, but Sarah Langlois stepped in and filled that spot beautifully," Kealy said. "They are different types of middles. Sarah is more of a defensive player with solid blocking and Anna is an offensive player with the ability to terminate. We've talked a lot about this throughout the season. One of the things that makes Sarah special is her willingness to put the team ahead of herself. She hasn't played as much as she would have liked thus far, but is ready when her team needs her."

The Wildcats will need all hands on deck when they open WIAA postseason play this Saturday, Oct. 21. River Falls received a first round bye and will host either No. 8 seed Marshfield or No. 9 Chippewa Falls in a regional final at 7 p.m. at the high school.

Kealy said it was apparent at the seeding meeting that nobody wanted to play River Falls in the playoffs.

"The seeding meeting took 2 hours and 15 minutes," she said. "I found out after the fact that teams were trying to avoid us as long as possible. That is quite the compliment. We were a solid No. 1 and Eau Claire North was a definite No. 2. Everyone else was pretty even until you got down to 12 and higher. We are thrilled to have the No. 1 seed for the first time in my tenure. The girls have worked hard and definitely earned it."

Bob Burrows
Bob Burrows has been sports editor at the River Falls Journal since 1996 and at the Hudson Star-Observer since 2009. Prior to joining the Journal, Burrows served as sports editor with Ledger Publications in Balsam Lake, Wis. A native of Bayonne, N.J. and a U.S. Navy veteran, Burrows attended Marquette University before completing his studies at UW-River Falls in 1992.
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