The last three years the River Falls volleyball team has adopted the hashtag, “Road to the Resch,” for its run through the playoffs. This year head coach Sara Kealy changed it to, “Resch Ready.”
The Wildcats clinched their fourth straight trip to the Resch Center, site of the WIAA State Volleyball Tournament in the shadow of Green Bay’s Lambeau Field, with a three-set sweep of Eau Claire North in last Saturday’s sectional final, two nights after sweeping Hudson in the section semis. And after a state quarterfinal loss in 2016, a runner-up finish in 2017 and a semifinal loss last year, Kealy said the Cats are primed and ready to make a run at the state title this year.
“We have a goal to win and will show up ready to compete,” she said. “I’ve had very talented teams before, but never a group with this much experience. We are going to Green Bay to burn it down.”
The Wildcats earned the No. 3 seed for the 8-team state tournament and will open play with a quarterfinal match against No. 6 Appleton North Thursday, Nov. 7, at 4 p.m. at the Resch Center. Second-seeded Oconomowoc and No. 7 Kettle Moraine will meet in another afternoon quarterfinal while the evening session will feature No. 1 Arrowhead against No. 8 Sun Prairie and No. 4 Burlington against No. 5 Union Grove.
The state semifinal matches will be held Friday, Nov. 8, at 7:30 p.m. with the state title game slated for Saturday Nov. 9, at 7:30 p.m.
River Falls has not faced No. 1 seed Arrowhead this season and lost a three-set match to No. 2 Oconomowoc in the finals of the Charger Rally in Milwaukee Sept. 21, but that was without senior setter Madde Kealy and 6-foot, 4-inch middle blocker Anna Wolf, who are both now healthy after missing the first half of the season with injuries.
“As much as the adversity was a frustration then, it very much makes us a wild card now,” Kealy said. “Teams don't know what to expect from us.”
If the Wildcat’s performance so far this postseason is any indication, opponents can expect a handful. In the Cat’s 25-13, 25-14, 25-19 sectional final win over Eau Claire North, Kealy dished out 49 assists while seniors Emily Banitt and Halle Olson had 14 and 12 kills, respectively, and Wolf added 11.
Banitt had 14 kills in Thursday night’s 25-11, 25-15, 25-15 win over Hudson, and Olson scored nine while Wolf had six, including a thunderous strike near the end of the third set that electrified the Halloween-clad River Falls student section.
Coach Kealy said she liked the Wildcat’s “swag” in their Thursday night victory over the Raiders.
“We talked a lot about swag,” she said. “I have some of the nicest kids on my team and I’m grateful for that. But at the same time I don’t want them to be nice all the time. I want them to play with that intensity of wanting to just destroy a team. And we’re starting to figure that out. The first set especially, I think they came out with that fire.”
Senior libero Maddy Doerre said the Cats heard Kealy’s message loud and clear.
“It’s always great to play your rival,” she said. “And we just wanted to come out with swag and beat them.”
The Cat’s maintained that swag Saturday against Eau Claire North.
“We showed up ready to go,” Kealy said. “From start to finish we controlled the pace of play in the match. Both student sections were fired up and that was motivating. The girls acted like they had something to prove.”
Saturday’s victory came after the team cancelled its usual Friday practice and pasta dinner to travel to Medford to support the Wildcat football team in its Level 2 playoff game. The night before, over 60 football players were on hand for the volleyball team’s win over Hudson in New Richmond.
“Many coaches might be afraid to give up practice time at this point in the season but I feel strongly that culture and community are the most important ingredients this time of year,” Kealy said. “We have a very good relationship with the football program, and we could not imagine not being there to cheer them on.”
So instead of Friday night pasta, Kealy and her mom, “Grandma Dar,” hosted a Saturday morning team brunch where Wildcat football coach David Crail addressed the girls.
“He shared a message that really hit close to home,” Kealy said. “It was about playing with joy. We took it to heart and I think the girls translated it to the court.”
Kealy said the Cat’s focus now is on Appleton North and Thursday afternoon’s state quarterfinal. Appleton North visited River Falls for a scrimmage in August, where the Lightning players stayed overnight at Wildcat players’ family homes. Kealy said it’s unfortunate that the Cat’s drew a “friend” in the first round at state.
“Our teams really think highly of each other,” she said. “But ultimately we were going to play them at some point.”