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Sweet 16-0: Cats win Irondale Tourney to stay undefeated

River Falls sophomore Emily Banitt (3) drills a shot just inside the stick in the second game of the Cats' 3-0 sweep of Menomonie Thursday night, Sept. 7 at the high school. Banitt had a team-high seven kills in the match. Bob Burrows / RiverTown Multimedia 1 / 3
River Falls senior Elise Banitt (1) blocks a shot as freshman Anna Wolf (11) provides support in the second game of the Wildcat volleyball team's 3-0 sweep of Menomonie in the Cat's home opener Thursday night, Sept. 7 at the high school. River Falls won by scores of 25-9, 25-8, 25-9. Bob Burrows / RiverTown Multimedia 2 / 3
River Falls sophomore Abby Doerre (6) celebrates a point in the second game of the Cats' 3-0 sweep of Menomonie Thursday night, Sept. 7 at the high school. The Cats went on to win the Irondale (Minn.) Tournament Saturday, Sept. 16, to improve to 16-0 on the season. Bob Burrows / RiverTown Multimedia 3 / 3

After the Wildcat volleyball team dropped its first set of the season, 21-25, to Benilde-St. Margaret at the Irondale (Minn.) Tournament Saturday, Sept. 9, head coach Sara Kealy told the team in the huddle that she loved the situation they were in.

"They all looked at me like I was crazy," Kealy said. "What coach likes to see their team lose?"

But there was a method to Kealy's madness. It was the first time the fifth-ranked Wildcats had lost in 33 sets this season, and she knew that if they had any hopes of winning a state championship, they had to learn how to deal with adversity.

"I explained that we need to play good teams and learn how to compete if we want to win a state championship," she said. "We can't just roll through our schedule and be prepared to play come playoff time. They had two choices, either get mad and play like they are capable of playing, or quit because you aren't used to getting challenged and lose the match."

The Cats responded by winning the next two sets, 25-13 and 15-8, to not only win the match but close out a 4-0 day, claim the tournament title, and improve to 16-0 on the season.

"The best thing that happened to us all day was dropping the first set to a solid Benilde St. Margaret's team," Kealy noted. "They responded better than I could have ever imagined."

Kealy said one advantage the Wildcats had over Benilde-St. Margaret was the leadership the Cats had on the court.

"Izzy (Barr) is a calm presence on our team," the coach noted. "She encourages her teammates when they are down, makes good choices on offense, and has the ability to deliver a hittable ball every time she touches it. Her ball placement really is phenomenal."

The Wildcats also defeated Coon Rapids, 25-6, 25-6, White Bear Lake 25-9, 25-13, and St. Louis Park 25-18, 25-16, at the tournament. Barr dished out 23 assists on the day while sophomore Halle Olson led a balanced offense with 10 kills.

"Halle had a solid match also against Benilde," Kealy pointed out. "She keeps her composure when playing against good competition, which is a sign of maturity. She has played like a veteran player since day one of her freshman season."

Senior Sam Krueger provided a spark on defense with eight digs, including one off a serve that clipped the net.

"She is so fast and covers a tremendous amount of the back court," Kealy said. "She laid out for that ball in a full extension and passed it right to the target."

Kealy said freshman Anna Wolf also had a good day with four kills, a .571 hitting percentage and four digs.

"She contributed a couple kills with a high hitting percentage like we expected, but what surprised me the most was her serving," Kealy said. "She led a big run in that pivotal second set (against Benilde) with a string of aces and a couple digs. Anna was just the spark we needed to turn the momentum of that match around."

Earlier in the week the Wildcats hosted Menomonie in their home opener and dispatched the Mustangs in less than an hour by scores of 25-9, 25-8, 25-9.

All 12 Wildcats saw action in the match and nine recorded at least one kill, led by sophomore Emily Banitt with seven. Krueger served up 10 aces to lead six players with at least one ace, and added 10 digs as nine different players recorded a dig. Sophomore Maddi Kealy came off the bench to dish out a team-high 16 assists and junior Sarah Langlois contributed five kills and hit a team-high .667 while junior Mariah Marg led the team with a 2.5 passing average.

Coach Kealy said it was nice to see contributions up and down the Wildcat lineup.

"We have a lot of depth on this team, and as a coach I am excited to see the less veteran players continue to develop and learn to compete," she said.

After practicing at the middle school and playing nothing but road matches the first three weeks of the season, Kealy said it was also nice to be back in their home gym.

"We had not had any practices there, had not moved our equipment back over yet, but it didn't matter," she said. "The kids were so excited to be back in our gym. And the atmosphere was awesome with all the support from the Cat's Den, families and the community."

The Wildcats will head back on the road this week with matches at Prescott Tuesday, Sept. 12, Rice Lake Thursday, Sept. 14, at the Watertown Invitational Saturday, Sept. 16. They will host Eau Claire Memorial at the high school Thursday, Sept. 21, at 7 p.m.

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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