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River Falls: Top sports stories of 2017

UW-River Falls celebrated the grand opening of the $63.5 million Falcon Center for Health, Education and Wellness Sept. 21. File photo 1 / 5
UW-River Falls senior Grant Erickson is cheered on by his teammates as he takes his turn cutting down the net after the Falcons defeated UW-Oshksoh, 50-59, in the WIAC Tournament championship game Feb. 25 at Karges Center. File photo 2 / 5
Members of the St. Paul Saints joined the St. Croix Valley Baseball League All-Stars for the post-game tradition of greeting the kids as they run the bases following the Saints exhibition game against the local town ball players Saturday, May 13, at First National Bank of River Falls Field. File photo 3 / 5
Wildcat volleyball players Halle Olson (7), Elise Banitt (1), Emily Banitt (3), Marissa Stockman and Izzy Bar (8) celebrate a point in a WIAA State Tournament semifinal match against Oconomowoc Friday, Nov. 3, at the Resch Center in Green Bay. Bob Burrows / RiverTown Multimedia 4 / 5
The Wildcat gymnastics team is welcomed back to town on the River Falls Fire Department's ladder truck Sunday, March 4, after placing second at the WIAA State Gymnastics Tournament. File photo 5 / 5

Wildcat volleyball makes history

River Falls was captivated by the season the high school volleyball team put together in 2017.

The Wildcats won their second straight Big Rivers Conference championship, qualified for the WIAA State Tournament for the second straight year and reached the state title game for the first time before suffering their only loss of the season in a five-set thriller to Burlington.

Fans flocked to Green Bay for the state tournament Nov. 2-4 and those that couldn't make the trip watched online at viewing parties at bars and restaurants all over town. The Wildcats defeated Kimberly in three sets in the quarterfinals for the first state tournament win in school history and defeated Oconomowoc in four sets in the semifinals to reach the state championship game for the first time ever.

After losing the first two sets to Burlington, the Wildcats stormed back to tie the match and were two points away from winning the state championship before Burlington scored the final four points to claim the title. The match not only marked River Falls' first loss of the season, but the first time it had lost more than one set to an opponent all year.

The Wildcats finished the season with a record of 43-1.

Gymnastics dynasty continues

The Wildcat gymnastics team took home a second place finish at the WIAA State Gymnastics Tournament in March after qualifying for the state meet for the 16th straight year. The Cats have won six state titles in that span while finishing state runner-up four other times.

Junior Sam Krueger set a new state team record in the floor exercise with a score of 9.7 in the team competition Friday, March 3, and followed that up with a new state record score of 9.833 in the state individual competition Saturday, March 4, to win her second straight state title on the floor and third overall. The three judges awarded Krueger scores of 9.7, 9.9 and 9.9; as close to a "perfect 10" as anybody had ever gotten at state.

Krueger also took second place on the balance beam and vault and finished third on the uneven bars to finish as state runner-up in the all-around competition. She was the state champion in both the floor exercise and vault as a sophomore in 2016.

The Wildcats also earned the WIAA Rural Mutual Insurance Company Team Sportsmanship Award for the 2016-17 winter season. The award is presented to one school and community in each of the state team tournaments and is determined by the conduct and sportsmanship displayed by athletes, coaches, cheer and support groups, mascots, bands and spectators.

St. Paul Saints come to town

The independent minor league St. Paul Saints baseball team played its first-ever barnstorming exhibition game outside the state of Minnesota at First National Bank of River Falls Field on Saturday, May 13. The independent minor league team defeated a team consisting of St. Croix Valley Baseball League All-Stars, including six members of the local River Falls Fighting Fish, but that's not what people were talking about when it was over.

Nearly 2,500 people attended the game at the three year-old community ballpark that was built to hold around 350, while the Saints brought all the bells and whistles from their home field—CHS Field in St. Paul—including two-legged mascot, Mudonna, karaoke singer Seigo Masubuchi, who performed his version of Journey's "Don't Stop Believing," and a pair of 12 day-old piglets.

Saints starting pitcher Mark Hamburger, who Saints fans call "The Mayor" because of his popularity at CHS Field, gave First National Bank of River Falls Field and its fans high marks.

"We came in and looked down from the road and saw the ballpark and it was already filling up, and it was four hours before the game," he said. "What a pristine ballpark, you could tell they made it with love. It was an honor to come here and play."

Falcons sweep WIAC titles

The UW-River Falls men's basketball team ended its 58-year run at Karges Center by sweeping the WIAC regular season and tournament championships for the first time in school history.

The Falcons finished the regular season with a league-best 22-3 record before beating UW-Oshkosh, 60-59, in the WIAC Tournament title game Feb. 25 at Karges Center. They went on to host an NCAA Tournament Regional, defeating Bethel College, 94-92 in double overtime in the first round before ending their season with a 76-43 loss to Wartburg College in the round of 32.

UWRF finished the season with a record of 25-4, the most wins for a Falcon team since 1950. Junior Alex Herink of Hudson was named the WIAC Player of the Year and to the National Association of Basketball Coaches All-Central Region First Team while head coach Jeff Berkhof was named WIAC and NABC Central Region Coach of the Year.

UWRF women skate back to nationals

The UW-River Falls women's hockey team swept the WIAC regular season and tournament titles for the fourth straight season on its way to qualifying for the NCAA Tournament for the ninth year in a row in March.

The Falcons finished the 2016-17 season with a record of 26-3-0, ending their season with a 3-2 loss to Gustavus Adolphus College in the quarterfinals of the NCAA Tournament after reaching the final four the previous two seasons. Senior forward Dani Sibley was named the American Hockey Coaches Association Player of the Year while Joe Cranston, the only coach in the program's 19-year history, earned his fifth conference coach of the year honor.

UWRF Falcon Center opens

After nearly two decades of planning, UW-River Falls celebrated the grand opening of the $63.5 million Falcon Center for Health, Education and Wellness Sept. 21.

The Falcon Center is a comprehensive indoor and outdoor facility that provides NCAA competition venues for UWRF athletes and expansive spaces for campus recreation, fitness and academics. The project upgraded several existing facilities, including W.H. Hunt Arena and Robert P. Knowles Fieldhouse, while adding extensive new areas including a fitness center and Don Page Arena, which replaced the 58 year-old Karges Center as the new home for the Falcon men's and women's basketball and volleyball teams.

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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