In the middle of all the highs and lows the Wildcat volleyball team endured at the WIAA State Volleyball Tournament last weekend, senior Emily Banitt said one thing stood out to her the most.
“I went up to hit a ball and it’s a super-loud arena, and I hear Halle (Olson) behind me yelling, ‘I have your back! I have your back!’ she said. “Knowing that I can go up and swing as hard as I can and my teammate has my back if they block it; that’s the way it’s always been. Not just on the court but off too. We just always have each other’s backs.”
It was the fourth state tournament appearance in a row for the Wildcats. And while they didn’t reach their goal of winning a state championship, Banitt and Olson, both four-year starters, along with fellow seniors Maddi Kealy, Abby Larson, Abby Doerre and Jenna Huppert, ended their high school careers the only way they know how— having each other’s backs.
“I think that is something that’s special about this group,” head coach Sara Kealy said. “I feel like the athletes are very selfless and they care more about the person on the court next to them than they do their own selves. I think part of it is what we try to do as coaches, but a big part is how they’ve bought into that and how they’ve invested themselves in our program. They’ve really built a lot of that themselves.”
This year’s seniors helped the Wildcats post a record of 160-16 over the last four years while never losing a match of their home court. Their legacy includes four straight Big Rivers Conference titles, four regional and sectional championships, a state runner-up finish, and two state sectional semifinal appearances. But Maddi Kealy said none of that is what she’ll remember the most.
“I’m going to remember the relationships,” she said after last Friday’s tournament loss to Oconomowoc. “All the teams I’ve been on; JV my first year, then every year after that. Each player on those teams means more to me than anyone else, ever.”
Olson said she was “nervously excited” that, no matter what happened last weekend, it would be the last time she would take the court with her Wildcat teammates.
“I really, really believe in my team,” she said. “But this is my last season. So I was just really focused on making sure I’m giving my all out there and I did. And it was so much fun.”
Doerre credited her coach Sara Kealy with cultivating a team culture that spreads far beyond the court.
“I think Sara does a really great job of helping us become closer with team bonding and all the activities,” she said. “You really do grow super strong relationships with your teammates.”
Coach Kealy has had plenty of time to watch those relationships grow. In addition to being two-year starting setter Maddi Kealy’s coach, she’s also her stepmother. And in her ten years at the helm at River Falls, she’s gotten to know these seniors well.
“When I started coaching here ten years ago Maddi was a second grader,” she said. “And now she’s graduating, and it’s really, really hard for me to know that she won’t be there. These girls in this senior class are the kids who were having slumber parties with Maddi when she was little and they’d crash at my house. And I feel very invested in who they are as people.”
Kealy said she had an emotional conversation with WIAA assistant director Stephanie Hauser after the Wildcat’s loss to Oconomowoc in last Friday’s state semifinals.
“I was crying and she said, I know it hurts, but when you’ve had some time to sit back and think about it you’ll realize what a great experience it is,” Kealy recalled. “And I said, I’m not crying because of losing this match. I don’t like to lose, but what I’m crying about is, I can’t imagine my gym without a Halle Olson or Emily Banitt, or Maddy Doerre or Maddi Kealy or Jenna Huppert or Abby Larson. I just feel like they’ve been there forever.”
Kealy said before the Wildcat’s first state appearance four years ago, she drew a map on the back of the team’s state t-shirts so people around the state would know where River Falls was. She said thanks to the six seniors, they know now.
“Before they walked in the gym four years ago, we were just hoping to win a BRC title,” she said. “And now it’s just become the expectation to win conference, qualify for the state tournament and show up and compete.”
Four of the Cat’s six seniors will go on to play volleyball in college— Olson at Florida Atlantic University, Banitt at the University of Loyola-Chicago, Maddi Kealy at the University of Minnesota-Duluth, and Larson at UW-Oshkosh. But Kealy said that’s not what she’s most proud of about this group.
“One thing I try and tell the girls is; set this moment aside, and when you look back on your four years of high school, what legacy did you leave?” she said. “And for the kids who are graduating and moving on, they have impacted this program by setting an expectation that we’re in Green Bay playing in the state tournament every year. I feel like, not only have they impacted the youth and the younger players who are in this room right now, but they have created a lot of respect for our program among other top programs in the state.”
Kealy said as bittersweet as it is to see the seniors leave, Hauser helped put things in perspective after their state semifinal loss last weekend.
“One thing Steph said was, that’s a sign of a strong program,” Kealy said. “When your coaches are happy to see the athletes go on to the next level because you know that they have created a foundation that will carry them into that place where they can be successful. But it’s also hard because you care so much, you don’t want to let them go.”
Any good coach, or parent, would agree.