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Oh so close: Wildcats bring home silver

Wildcat seniors Elise Banitt, left, and Izzy Barr dive to keep a ball alive in the fourth set of the championship match against Burlington at the WIAA State Volleyball Tournament Saturday, Nov. 4, at the Resch Center in Green Bay. The Wildcats battled back from two sets down to force a fifth and deciding set before Burlington pulled out a 15-13 win to claim the state title. Bob Burrows / RiverTown Multimedia 1 / 2
Wildcat sophomore Emily Banitt knocks down one of her 13 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

The River Falls volleyball team's quest for a state championship and undefeated season fell two points short in a five-set thriller to Burlington in the WIAA Division 1 state title match Saturday, Nov. 4, at Green Bay's Resch Center.

After storming back from two sets down to tie the match, the Wildcats led 13-11 in the fifth and deciding set before Burlington scored the final four points to hand the Cats a 20-25, 17-25, 25-22, 25-17, 13-14 loss and win its third state championship in the last seven years.

The match not only marked River Falls' first loss of the season, but the first time it had lost more than one set to an opponent all year.

"To be honest with you, going into the fifth set and having the lead there, I thought we were going to win this," head coach Sara Kealy said. "I think everybody thought that too. And then it was a battle and we came up short. I think if we had played to 25 we probably would have had a chance to gut it out but we didn't. It's just really unfortunate with everything positive that's happened this season, that it feels bad right now."

The Wildcats reached their first state title game in program history by beating Kimberly, 25-21, 25-19, 25-10 in the quarterfinals Thursday, Nov. 2, and knocking off top-ranked Oconomowoc, 26-24, 25-22, 22-25, 25-19 in Friday night's semifinals.

After falling behind 2-0 for the first time all season in the finals against Burlington, the Wildcats kicked it up a notch.

"I just told them that it's gut-check time and your backs are against the wall and you're either going to show up and start playing the way we know how to play volleyball or it's going to be over really fast," Kealy said. "That's what happens when you're playing against really good teams. And I feel like, with our four seniors in particular, they weren't really ready to be done. It was neat to see the enthusiasm they brought to the court and how the underclassmen responded."

Back-to-back kills by freshman Anna Wolf and sophomore Emily Banitt gave the Wildcats the lead for good in the third set, 7-5. Burlington was within two, 24-22, late when Olson delivered the match winner to make the score 2-1.

River Falls played its best set of the match in the fourth set, hitting .533 as a team with senior Marissa Stockman collecting seven of her team-high 19 kills.

The Wildcats jumped out to a 4-1 lead in the fifth and deciding set and led 13-11 after a kill by Banitt but Burlington scored the next three points to take its first lead since the second set.

Senior libero Sam Krueger made a diving save of a Burlington kill attempt to keep the ball alive but the Wildcats had to send a free ball back to the Demons, who set up UW-Milwaukee recruit Abby Koenen for the title-clinching kill.

Kealy said she was proud of the way the Wildcats battled back in the match.

"Being down 0-2, we've never been in a position like that this season," she noted. "I think part if it was just the environment and the big stage, we were a little rattled to start. So I couldn't be more proud of the girls and the way they came back to win sets three and four."

Stockman, an Illinois State recruit, led the Wildcats with 19 kills while hitting .536 for the match. Olson was just as effective, finishing with 18 kills and a .300 hitting percentage, while sophomore Banitt contributed 13 kills.

Defensively four Wildcats had double-digit digs, led by Banitt with 20. Olson added 14 and Krueger had 12 while senior Elise Banitt registered 11. Senior setter Izzy Barr finished with 54 assists and nine digs.

Barr said the Wildcats left it all on the court in the title match

"It was just the determination that we had all year," she said. "We all had the goal to get to the state championship and that's what we did. Sure, we didn't win it, but I think we still played out hearts out, especially in those last three games."

Kealy said once the sting of suffering its only loss in the state finals wears off, the team will be able to put its historic season in perspective.

"I tried to tell the girls, when you look back, down the road, when it's not so raw, I think they'll be really proud because they had an inspirational season, not only wins and losses, but what they did for our community and River Falls and the people that were excited about volleyball and our high school and supporting us," the coach said.

River Falls, making its second straight state tournament appearance, finished the season with a record of 43-1. Burlington, playing in its seventh state tournament in the last eight years, added the 2017 state title to its back-to-back 2011 and 2012 championships.

Burlington co-head coach Teri Leach said she had her doubts about the outcome right up until the final point.

"I felt like we were battling until we got that 15th point," she said. "I don't think there was a moment of, 'oh we've got this.' I think that moment came when we put that final ball away."

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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