RIVER FALLS, Wis. -- River Falls volleyball coach Sara Kealy said this year’s Wildcat team is different from the last four teams that have made it to state -- but in a good way.

“I think because of the type of season we’ve had, we haven’t gotten into things like -- this is this person’s role and that’s that person’s role,” she said. “I just think it’s a very balanced team, and we haven’t always had that in the past. We relied on certain individuals too much. But we don’t have to be the 2017 team and we don’t have to be last year’s team. These girls have their own identity.”

But one identity this year’s team does share with the last four is that of state qualifier. And they did that by sweeping Hortonville in a sectional semifinal match Thursday, Oct. 29, before taking care of Merrill in similar fashion in Saturday night’s sectional final.

Kealy said the team just feels fortunate to be playing this season.

“I told the girls at the very beginning, any volleyball we get is going to be a blessing because we honestly didn’t think we would,” she said. “We’ve had players that had to get tested and came back negative and a player in quarantine because somebody at her lunch table tested positive. I just feel like we dodged a lot of bullets to get here, so we’re happy to have the opportunity to play and that the WIAA is even letting us have a tournament series, that was another question mark. So we’re grateful for sure.”

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River Falls’ senior Anna Wolf (11) hammers a kill past Hortonville’s Molly Rohde (5) in the second set of the Wildcats’ 3-0 sweep of the Polar Bears in a WIAA Division 1 volleyball sectional semifinal Thursday night, Oct. 29, in River Falls. Bob Burrows / RiverTown Multimedia
River Falls’ senior Anna Wolf (11) hammers a kill past Hortonville’s Molly Rohde (5) in the second set of the Wildcats’ 3-0 sweep of the Polar Bears in a WIAA Division 1 volleyball sectional semifinal Thursday night, Oct. 29, in River Falls. Bob Burrows / RiverTown Multimedia

Thursday night the top-seeded Wildcats swept No. 4 Hortonville 25-11, 25-22, 25-18, and that balance Kealy talked about was on full display with Anna Wolf registering 12 kills, Haley Graetz 10 and Brianna Brathol 7. Brathol also drilled three aces and Morgan Kealy dished out 34 assists while defensively, Dani Lien came up with 16 digs, Kealy had 11 and Brathol had 10. Amelia Armstrong had four blocks at the net while Wolf scored three and Brathol and Graetz had two each.

Saturday against Merrill the Wildcats struggled early and trailed 6-10 before the score was tied three times at 10-10, 16-16 and 18-18. But a pair of Armstrong kills helped them open up a 21-18 lead and Lien drilled back-to-back aces at the end to give the Cats a 25-19 win.

Kealy said she used an old coaching trick after the Wildcats fell behind early.

“I had to call a timeout early and do a little chewing,” she said. “Then I was telling the girls at the end of the second set, ‘Hey I’m going to teach you a little coaching trick, I wasn’t really mad. We had to shift our energy and I didn’t know if you could do it on your own.’”

Kealy’s trick worked as the Cats closed the match with 25-7 and 25-15 victories to punch their ticket to state.

Kealy said it was good that the Wildcats were challenged early.

“I think the girls just kind of get used to playing at a certain pace and that’s been good enough for us to win,” she said. “But as you move through the tournament it gets very different. And we didn’t have those matches this year at those Saturday tournaments against that top competition. So this is really the first time where we had anybody putting some pressure on us.”

Armstrong led another balanced attack with 12 kills while Wolf and Brathol had 10 each. Morgan Kealy finished with 39 assists and Lien and Graetz scored two aces apiece while Lien had 18 digs, Graetz had 13, Bathol had 11 and Kealy finished with 10.

The River Falls volleyball team poses with the sectional championship plaque after sweeping Merrill Saturday night, Oct. 31, to earn their fifth straight trip to state. Bob Burrows / RiverTown Multimedia
The River Falls volleyball team poses with the sectional championship plaque after sweeping Merrill Saturday night, Oct. 31, to earn their fifth straight trip to state. Bob Burrows / RiverTown Multimedia

The Wildcats received the No. 2 seed for the four-team Division 1 state tournament in Wisconsin Rapids this Saturday, Nov. 7, and will face third-seeded Burlington in a semifinal match at 4 p.m. Top-seeded Hamilton and No. 4 Sauk Prairie kick off the tournament at 1 p.m. with the championship match scheduled for 7:30 p.m. at Wisconsin Rapids Lincoln High School.

Kealy said she thinks the balance that is unique to this year’s Wildcat team will help them at the state tournament this weekend.

“I am really pleased with how well-rounded this team is as we move through the playoffs,” she said. It’s easy for our opponents to key in on certain individuals, like defending Anna for example. When that happens, it opens up our pin hitters and both Brianna and Haley are taking advantage of that. Balanced teams tend to do well at the state tourney because they fill in the gaps for each other, and this team is going to be a fun one to watch this year.”