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One step closer: Wildcats volleyball wins regional final

Wildcat freshman Anna Wolf (11) stuffs a shot by Marshfield's Madison Nelles in the first set of the Cats' 3-0 victory over Marshfield in a WIAA Division 1 regional final Saturday night, Oct. 21, at the high school. Bob Burrows / RiverTown Multimedia 1 / 3
Wildcats Emily Banitt (3), Izzy Barr (8), Halle Olson (7) and Sam Krueger celebrate a point in the Cats' 3-0 victory over Marshfield in a WIAA Division 1 regional final Saturday night, Oct. 21, at the high school. The win moved the Wildcats to a sectional semifional against Stevens Point Thursday, Oct. 26, at D.C. Everest. Bob Burrows / RiverTown Multimedia 2 / 3
Wildcat senior Marissa Stockman goes up high to deliver one of her team-high 13 kills in the Cats' 3-0 victory over Marshfield in a WIAA Division 1 regional final Saturday night, Oct. 21, at the high school. Bob Burrows / RiverTown Multimedia 3 / 3

The top-seeded Wildcat volleyball team started out like gangbusters in its WIAA Division 1 regional final Saturday night, Oct. 21, against Marshfield.

The Wildcats scored the first seven points of the game and were clicking on all cylinders when things started to slowly bog down.

"In the middle of the first set, we hit a passing slump," head coach Sara Kealy noted. "To be a primary passer is an enormous amount of pressure. It is one of those skills that is not recognized until it goes bad."

When Marshfield clawed its way back to within four points, 19-15, late in the set, Kealy called a timeout, the Wildcats regrouped, and everything was well in the world again.

River Falls closed the first set with a 6-2 run to win 25-17, then dominated the Tigers in back-to-back 25-9, 25-9 victories to win their third straight regional title and improve to 39-0 on the season.

Kealy said the Cats' primary passing corp of Elise Banitt, Sam Krueger, Halle Olson and Emily Banitt stepped up big time after their first set mini-slump.

"They have done a phenomenal job all season of giving Izzy (Barr) passes that she can distribute to our big hitters," Kealy said. "After we took the time out at 19-15 and talked about it we were able to regroup. As expected, these kids take feedback so well and are able to make adjustments. It is so impressive."

Also impressive was the hitting of 6-2 senior Marissa Stockman in the middle. Stockman not only led the Wildcats with 13 kills, she did it with a team-high .526 hitting percentage.

"Marissa had another impressive hitting night," Kealy noted. "I was also impressed with her blocking at the net. We have worked on it this week and I can see the changes being made. She is an impact player because of her skill and emotional intensity."

Stockman registered a team-high four blocks while Sarah Langlois came off the bench to contribute three.

Olson finished with 10 kills on the night and Emily Banitt had seven while Anna Wolf chipped in five and Elise Banitt had four.

"Elise Banitt played well all around," Kealy said about the senior. "She sparked us on defense with her inspired effort and was an effective option for us on the right side. We were not able to get her the ball as much as we would have liked, but it is exciting to see her peak at tournament time."

Krueger led the Wildcat defense with 11 digs and Emily and Elise Banitt made nine each while senior setter Izzy Barr dished out 32 set assists.

Kealy said it was an emotional night for the seniors because it was the final match on their home floor. The Wildcats will travel to Schofield to play Stevens Point in a sectional semifinal Thursday, Oct. 26, at D.C. Everest High School while the sectional title game is scheduled for Saturday, Oct. 28, in Menomonie. A win Saturday would send the Wildcats to their second straight WIAA State Volleyball Tournament Nov. 2-4 in Green Bay.

"I know Izzy talked about it on her cube player of the game interview," Kealy recalled. "She teared up as she explained how special it has been to be apart of the changes that have happened in our program over the last four years. Her freshman year, we won our first playoff game of my tenure by beating Wausau West in the first round of regionals. Her sophomore year, we won our first regional title by beating Hudson. Her junior year, we won our first sectional title by beating D.C. Everest to qualify for state. Now we have a legitimate chance of winning a state title if we are able to play to our potential.

"The emotion of seeing all the changes was overwhelming to her and I understand because I feel it myself at times," Kealy added. "It truly is a testament to the hard work and dedication of the athletes."

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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