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Cats one big, happy family

Wildcat senior Sam Krueger dives for one of her 12 digs in the WIAA State championship match against Burlington Saturday, Nov. 4, at the Resch Center in Green Bay. Bob Burrows / RiverTown Multimedia 1 / 2
Wildcat senior Elise Banitt drills a ball down the line for one of her six kills in the WIAA State championship match against Burlington Saturday, Nov. 4, at the Resch Center in Green Bay. Bob Burrows / RiverTown Multimedia 2 / 2

If you think this season was all about winning for the Wildcat volleyball team, listen to head coach Sara Kealy describe what she'll remember most.

"The chemistry that this team had, more so than the wins and losses," she said. "I think it's about the relationships that you build and what you can add to each other's lives. And I talk about the seniors but I think my juniors and sophomores and my lone wolf freshman have added something invaluable to each other's lives outside of how to pass, set and hit a volleyball."

That was the theme at the River Falls press conference following its five-set loss to Burlington in the state championship match Saturday, Nov. 4, in the shadow of Lambeau Field at Green Bay's Resch Center. After expressing disappointment over their only loss of the year, Kealy and the Wildcats talked about what they'll really take away from this season.

"I love these kids. I love them like they're my own, and some of them are my own," Kealy said, referring to her daughter, sophomore setter Maddi Kealy before turning her attention to the team's four seniors.

"I've had Izzy (Barr) in the gym with me ever since I started eight years ago," she noted. "Elise (Banitt) came to me new as a freshman and I thought, who is this scrawny little kid? Then I saw her play volleyball and I thought, right on, I'm so happy she's here. Then I got a chance to know her and love her the same way I did Izzy.

"Then I've got Sam (Krueger). Sam is the one that we have to continue to convince to play volleyball. She keeps trying to leave our program and we have to pull her back in. But our team wouldn't be the same without her. Sam's that kid that you just hope your kids grow up to be like. She's just special. And then we get Marissa (Stockman) new this year, and you never know when you get somebody coming in as a senior, how they're going to gel with the group. And I thought she just did it flawlessly. The energy that she brings to the court is something that just powered us through a lot of this season. So we needed her; we needed all of them."

The family theme was a constant for the Wildcats this season, and they displayed that with the words, "Count on Me" on the front of their warm-up jerseys. It's especially true for senior Elise Banitt and her sister Emily, a sophomore. The pair have helped the Wildcats post a record of 78-6 the last two years with two state tournament appearances. Elise got emotional talking about how special these last two years have been.

"It's been such an honor," she said. "I know a bunch of people don't get to play with their sister all the time and it's so great. We don't fight at all, on the court at least. It's just so much fun to be around her and have the energy around her. I'm going to miss it so much."

Elise said the entire team feels like sisters.

"We're like one, big happy family," she said. "We're always there for each other. There's no little groups on our team at all, and that's what I love about it so much and will take away from this year."

Barr, a four-year starter with the Wildcats, said she hopes the players that follow her through the program will feel just as lucky.

"I know we have a lot of talent coming up and I know they'll look at this year and be inspired by what we've done," she said. "And I just think they'll want to carry on that legacy and go far and do what they love. Because it was a lot of fun this year being with everyone here and I'm going to miss it."

This year's team has raised the bar for future Wildcats, but Kealy said seeing past players stay connected to the program means just as much to her.

"I look back with this run that this team made and I'm getting text messages and Facebook posts and all these things from former players, and some of them were here in the stands tonight," she said. "Because they love being a part of this program and they want to continue to do that. As a coach that means a lot to me when kids want to keep coming back because you've built a relationship with them. So for me, it's the relationships that I take away from it, and I hope that they do with each other."

Barr just nodded her head.

"I'd agree with that," she said through the tears.

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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