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Up to the challenge

New Wildcat volleyball coach Sara McDonald shares a light moment at practice with her team Friday morning in the high school gym. The Wildcats will host the River Falls Quad Thursday beginning at 4:15 p.m. Bob Burrows photo

Sara McDonald said she was struck by something one of the returning Wildcat volleyball players said to her during her interview for the head coaching position earlier this summer.

"When I interviewed for the position there were four girls from the team at the interview," she recalled. "Rollie (Activities Director Rollie Hall) asked me if there was anything I'd like to ask the girls, so I asked them, what do you want to see in the program? Masy Engel, said; 'I want to be respected.' That was good to hear, especially coming from a junior. That tells me a lot about where the girls want to take this program."

McDonald said she is up to the challenge. A three-time high school All-American in Muncie, Ind., she was the Gatorade Midwest Player of the Year her senior season as the top player in eight Midwest states. She went on to play four years at the University of Illinois and has run volleyball camps in five states over the last few years.

She had the opportunity to get to know many of her current players as a coach in the River Falls Junior Olympic program the last two years. Now, she's prepared to help the high school program take it to the next level.

"I'm excited," she said. "I think when you're coming off a 1-15 season, or whatever it was, some people may say you don't have anything to work with; that you've hit the bottom of the barrel. I see it as, these kids are hungry for success. We have to give them the tools and let them run with it."

McDonald, a special education teacher at Lake Middle School in Woodbury, Minn., and resident of River Falls, said 67 girls turned out for the first week of practice last week. She said the first thing she's emphasizing is consistency.

"I told the assistant coaches, we're going to so the same things and we're going to use the same terminology," she said. "When I get a girl from JV up on varsity I want her to understand right away what we're doing."

She said she's been working the girls hard the first week, but they've embraced the challenges.

"If you're not willing to get out of your comfort zone, you're going to be average," she said. "That may be OK with you, but it's not OK with me. We're going to be better than average."

She described herself as a technique-oriented coach, and expects a strong effort from her players, especially on defense.

"A ball isn't going to hit the floor without somebody going after it, she said. "They're really starting to buy into that. My hope is that within the next couple of years, we'll be known as a ball control team. Ball control, defense and lots of energy: That's what makes a good team."

She said she's excited about the enthusiasm of both the players and the parents so far, and wants to provide some stability to a program that has seen six different head coaches since 2003.

"These kids work hard," she said. "I really want the girls to be proud of this program. I'm a realist, I know you're not going to win a state championship in one year. But I want to be here for the long term."

The Wildcats will host the River Falls Quad Tournament this Thursday, Aug 26, beginning at 4:15 p.m. at the high school.

Bob Burrows
Bob Burrows has been sports editor at the River Falls Journal since 1996 and at the Hudson Star-Observer since 2009. Prior to joining the Journal, Burrows served as sports editor with Ledger Publications in Balsam Lake, Wis. A native of Bayonne, N.J. and a U.S. Navy veteran, Burrows attended Marquette University before completing his studies at UW-River Falls in 1992.
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