The Wildcat volleyball team was feeling pretty good about itself after beating Appleton North 25-12 to take a 2-0 lead in the WIAA Division 1 state quarterfinals Thursday night in Green Bay. But then the Lightning gave the Cats a dose of reality.

Appleton North scored the first three points of the third set— the first time River Falls trailed all night— and led 7-3 before the Wildcats pulled out a see-saw third set to advance to the state semifinals by scores of 25-21, 25-12, 25-23.

River Falls players, from left, Jenna Huppert (8), Morgan Kealy (1), Brianna Brathol (2), Taylor Peterson (14), Amelia Armstrong (15), and Maddy Doerre (13) and erupt off the bench following the Wildcat’s final point in their 25-12 second set victory over Appleton North in a WIAA Division 1 state volleyball quarterfinal match at the Resch Center in Green Bay Thursday, Nov. 7. Bob Burrows / RiverTown Multimedia
River Falls players, from left, Jenna Huppert (8), Morgan Kealy (1), Brianna Brathol (2), Taylor Peterson (14), Amelia Armstrong (15), and Maddy Doerre (13) and erupt off the bench following the Wildcat’s final point in their 25-12 second set victory over Appleton North in a WIAA Division 1 state volleyball quarterfinal match at the Resch Center in Green Bay Thursday, Nov. 7. Bob Burrows / RiverTown Multimedia

Wildcat coach Sara Kealy said she had a simple message for her team after the Cats fell behind early in the third set.

“I told the girls, Appleton North is going to compete,” she said. “They didn’t get here by chance and they play a really strong schedule and they beat some really good teams. So just because they were down 0-2 the match wasn’t over. We had to continue to keep our mental focus, and they made some adjustments and it forced us to make adjustments. But I just thought we did a good job of finishing it in three rather than stretching it out.”

The Wildcats rode the hard hitting of senior outside hitters Halle Olson and Emily Banitt through the first two sets before sophomore middle hitter Anna Wolf came up with some big swings in set three. The trio accounted for 34 of the Cat’s 40 total kills with Olson leading all players with 14, Banitt scoring 12 and Wolf posting four of her eight kills in the third and deciding set.

River Falls’ Halle Olson (7) connects or one of her match-high 14 kills in the Wildcat’s 3-0 victory over the Appleton North in a WIAA Division 1 state volleyball quarterfinal match at the Resch Center in Green Bay Thursday, Nov. 7. Bob Burrows / RiverTown Multimedia
River Falls’ Halle Olson (7) connects or one of her match-high 14 kills in the Wildcat’s 3-0 victory over the Appleton North in a WIAA Division 1 state volleyball quarterfinal match at the Resch Center in Green Bay Thursday, Nov. 7. Bob Burrows / RiverTown Multimedia

Banitt and Olson also came up big on defense with 14 and 12 digs, respectively, while senior libero Abby Doerre had 11. Senior setter Maddi Kealy dished out 30 assists while drilling a pair of service aces.

Coach Kealy said Olson and Banitt had most of the highlight plays in the match but it took an entire team, in its fourth straight trip to state, to hold off the Lightning.

“I thought our girls played really strong from the first point to the last,” she said. “I thought we got really good play from our outside hitters tonight. But across the board, I think the experience we’ve had in the last four years has helped us in terms of coming down here to the Resch (Center) and competing with teams.”

The Wildcats will face Oconomowoc in the Division 1 state semifinals for the third straight year Friday, Nov. 8, at 7:30 p.m. at the Resch Center. The Raccoons had to work hard to pull out a five-set victory over Kettle Moraine 25-22, 25-17, 24-26, 14-25, 15-9 to advance.