RIVER FALLS, Wis. -- The River Falls volleyball team lived up to its No. 1 seed in its Division 1 regional with a pair of three-set wins over New Richmond and Chippewa Falls, and has been rewarded with the top seed for sectional play, which gets underway Thursday, Oct. 29.

The top-seeded Wildcats will host No. 4 Hortonville in one sectional semifinal while No. 2 D.C. Everest and No. 3 Merrill will square off in the other. The winners will meet in the sectional title game Saturday, Oct. 31 at a site yet to be determined.

The Wildcats proved worthy of their No. 1 seed by sweeping No. 4 New Richmond, 25-9, 25-18, 25-5 in last Thursday’s regional final and doing the same to second-seeded Chippewa Falls, 25-20, 25-18, 25-22 in Saturday night’s regional final.

After going undefeated against nothing but Big Rivers Conference competition this season, River Falls coach Sara Kealy said it felt good to play somebody other than a conference opponent Thursday night against New Richmond.

“Playoffs have a different vibe than your regular season does,” she noted. “This season has been so strange with the loss of matches on our schedule. We’ve only played about 25% of the matches as we typically would. As a coach, you do everything you can to prepare your team, but in a year like this it is hard to say if your team is as mentally and physically prepared as you would like.”

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Safe to say, the Wildcats were prepared. Kealy said the first and third sets, where the Cats held the Tigers to single digits, were particularly impressive.

“They were very consistent, with a high level of intensity,” she said. “After the first few plays on Thursday, I had no doubt they were ready to make another run toward a state title.”

Amelia Armstrong led the Wildcat attack with 11 kills while hitting .667 for the match and added four blocks, while Haley Graetz recorded 11 kills and Anna Wolf scored eight. Morgan Kealy dished out 35 assists and Maddy Doerre drilled seven aces while Gratz came up with a team-high 10 digs.

Kealy said playing Chippewa Falls Saturday night was exactly what the Wildcats needed.

“The last couple years we haven’t seen intense competition during this round of the tournament,” she noted about the Wildcats’ sixth straight regional final appearance. “Chippewa Falls has an excellent team. They play really scrappy defense, pass the ball well in serve-receive and have athletic hitters. Yes, we beat them in three, but it was a match where we had to earn every point.”

Graetz again paced the Wildcats with 11 kills and Wolf added 10 while Morgan Kealy finished with 30 assists. Dani Lien registered 11 digs and Kealy had 15 while Wolf, Graetz and Armstrong had three blocks apiece.

Coach Kealy said the match will help the Wildcats as they advance into sectional play.

“They challenged us in some ways we haven’t seen this season, and gave us some things to focus on in order to be better moving forward,” she said. “We are such a strong offensive team that we don’t have a lot of opportunity to work on defense during matches because rallies end so quickly. That wasn’t the case against Chippewa Falls.”

Tigers learn from challenges this season

If there was one constant with the New Richmond volleyball this team this season it was that nothing was constant.

According to head coach Jeff Thiel, 16 different Tiger players and three coaches had to endure quarantine at some point during the season, some multiple times. It made fielding a lineup from game to game tricky, and demanded a lot of people step up. And despite ending their season with a three-set loss to River Falls in last Thursday's regional semifinal, Thiel said there is a greater lesson that his players learned this season.

“Winning is fun and losing hurts,” he said. “But in the long run, we learned a whole lot more about ourselves and who we are as human beings. I'm really proud of this group of young women. There was so much out of their control, and they fought to keep playing. But as I told the team last night, our season is not defined by a single moment, like taking one on the chin to River Falls, but is rather a series of moments that shape the story and paint the greater picture of each of us and our team.”

Two nights before their season-ending loss the Tigers won a Division 1 playoff match for just the second time in school history with a 29-27, 20-25, 25-18, 25-15 victory over Hudson in the regional quarterfinals. Cassie Dolezal led the way with 15 kills, Leah DeYoung had 12 and Cassie Emmerich scored 11 as the Tigers were without the services of Angie Blinderman and Kylie Naylor due to injury and quarantine.

“Their energy was awesome,” Thiel said. “After the match a few of the fans commented on how powerful and confident our team looked, and I couldn't agree more.”

Thiel said Dyllan Powers and Maddy Casey stepped in to take on larger roles defensively to complement some outstanding efforts by Emmerich and Abigail Blaszczyk.

Thiel said the team was looking forward to playing perennial powerhouse River Falls, but not under the circumstances that developed before their Thursday night match.

“We got word during the day of the match of another one of our athletes being quarantined which demanded, yep, you guessed it, another lineup change,” Thiel said. “This really challenged us as we had athletes playing with each other for the first time ever. Not ideal.”

Despite scoring in just single digits in two of the three sets against the Wildcats, Thiel said the Tigers have a lot to look forward to, and some learning to do in order to build depth within the program.

“This season definitely revealed that,” he said.

He said the program is also grateful for the leadership of the team’s four seniors this season-- Blaszczyk, DeYoung, Emmerich, and Ashley Patten.

“They have all led with their actions and voices and have been incredible in moving our team forward since the safer at home order went into place last spring,” he noted. “They have epitomized the idea of working to be ‘Stronger Together,’ which was our team's theme this season.”