RIVER FALLS -- The River Falls volleyball team lost a total of three matches all of last season. On Saturday, Sept. 7, at the Southwest Minnesota Classic, they lost three in one day.
So Wildcat head coach Sara Kealy wasn’t sure how her team would respond in its match at Hudson Thursday, Sept. 12. Especially with four veterans -- middle blocker Anna Wolf, outside hitter Dani Lien, and setters Maddi Kealy and Maddie Morrow -- out with injury.
To complicate matters, two-time all-state outside hitter Emily Banitt showed up Tuesday at practice with a sore knee.
“Having Maddi and Annie and Maddie and Dani all out, then Emily comes to practice Tuesday and said her knee hurts. I said you’re not allowed to be hurt,” Kealy joked. “I was a little worried coming off last weekend. I could tell the girls were a little emotionally shell-shocked by it so we just needed to regroup and play some good volleyball.”
And they did just that. After a tentative start, and thanks to some key contributions from their youngsters, the Wildcats swept the Raiders by scores of 25-19, 25-14, 25-14.
Freshman Morgan Kealy, who has stepped into the starting setter role with both her older sister Maddi Kealy and Morrow out, dished out 25 assists, and freshman Brianna Brathol, who transferred to River Falls from Hudson over the summer, contributed four kills from her outside position to help the seventh-ranked Wildcats improve to 14-3 on the season. Another freshman, Taylor Peterson, was one of four Wildcats to drill four aces in the win.
Coach Kealy said the Wildcats have handled the early-season adversity well.
“We have a really good group of kids in terms of how they support each other and how they work together,” she said. “I tell them all the time; every role on this team is valued. We’re all in, so we don’t do this without all of us. Even when your role changes unexpectedly, you’re still a valuable member of what we’re trying to do.”
Kealy said she had a long talk with her stepdaughter Morgan about asserting herself more and it paid off Thursday night.
“I think being a freshman; she’s a setter so she should be a leader but she doesn’t feel like it’s her right yet, or that it’s her place,” Coach Kealy said. “So she defers to Abby Doerre and to Emily and to some of these players who have been around a long time. So I said you have to stop doing that. You have to step up and be more vocal and lead your team. And I thought she did a really nice job tonight, both from a composure standpoint and from being more of a leader.”
Morgan Kealy said her stepmom and the rest of the coaching staff always know the right thing to say to the young players.
“Sarah always tells us, we went from playing at a U14 level and now we’re playing at a U18 level, so it’s a big step up,” she said. “But the coaches and the staff are so good at knowing exactly what to say and when to say it.”
Coach Kealy said Brathol also came up big Thursday night.
“Brianna came in and I thought played phenomenal,” she said. “She’s gone to Hudson, so for her to come to River Falls from Hudson then be back in Hudson’s gym isn’t easy. I did it when I transferred my freshman year, and going back for that match is hard; you’ve got a little emotional pull in both directions. And just the pressure to perform; to prove that you’re worthy. And I thought she went out and played like it was a practice, there was nothing on the line. And it’s nice to see somebody so young, that hasn’t had a lot of varsity experience, be able to do that. I’m excited about her potential.”
Brathol said it was fun being back in Hudson, but she loves playing for the Wildcats in River Falls.
“I love both schools and there’s a lot of school spirit at both and it makes it fun,” she said. “But everybody here has been super supportive. They’re so fun to play with.”
Senior outside hitter Haley Olson led the Wildcat offense Thursday with 12 kills and sophomore Haley Graetz had five while Brathol and junior Amelia Armstrong contributed four each. Both middle hitters -- Graetz and Armstrong -- hit at a .444 clip each.
Senior Abby Doerre came up with 14 digs on defense while Banitt made seven in a limited role.
“Emily was good,” Kealy said. “It hurts her more when she jumps than when she plays defense. I could tell she wants to contribute what she’s able to.”
With Madde Kealy, Morrow and Wolf all expected back before the end of the season, Coach Kealy said the Wildcats are trying to look at the big picture.
“We’re not looking at what’s happening on Sept. 12,” she said. “We’re looking at where will we be in October and November?”
The next step towards where the Wildcats will be by the end of the season will come Monday, Sept. 16, at East Ridge. They’ll host Menomonie Thursday, Sept. 19, before heading to Milwaukee for the two-day Eastbay Charger Challenge Friday and Saturday, Sept. 20-21.