River Falls celebrates

Members of the River Falls volleyball team celebrate on their home court after sweeping Chippewa Falls to claim their fifth straight Big Rivers Conference title Thursday night, Oct. 14. Bob Burrows / Star-Observer photo

Winning a conference title isn’t just a goal for the River Falls volleyball team, it’s an expectation. Just ask four-year starter Haley Graetz.

“One-hundred percent,” she said.

The Wildcats lived up to that expectation Thursday night for the sixth straight season with a three-game sweep of Chippewa Falls at the Cat’s Den.

River Falls and Chippewa Falls both entered the match with conference records of 6-0 and neither team had lost a set in conference play. And after a nailbiter of a first set that saw the Cardinals streak out to a 12-7 lead, the Wildcats stormed back for a 25-23 victory, and took the next two sets 25-14 and 25-19, to wrap up the conference title.

It’s been awhile since River Falls has been tested in the BRC, but coach Sara Kealy said beating an up-and-coming Chippewa Falls team, on Senior Night, at home, in a packed gym filled with both Wildcat and Cardinal fans, was a nice way to win their fifth straight conference title.

“We haven't had a match like probably since our 2017 season because people just expect that we're going to beat teams,” Kealy said. “And then to have a team that was a really strong competitor come in for the conference championship, I think made the community more excited. And then to have our students section cheering– they were really into it tonight. So what a great way to win it on Senior Night with a packed house.”

Chippewa Falls stole the momentum early by jumping out to a 12-7 lead in the opening set before the Wildcats went on a 7-2 run to tie the score, 14-14, on an ace by Brianna Brathol. Neither team led by more than two the rest of the way and the score was tied again at 23 before back-to-back kills by Brathol and Graetz gave the Cats the 25-23 win.

River Falls scored the first four points of the second set and never looked back in a 25-14 victory and used a 14-7 run midway through the third set to pull away for a 25-19 win and the conference crown.

Senior Maddy Doerre said the Wildcats needed a match like this heading into the playoffs.

“It’s good to get a good match under our belts before going into playoffs because it just gives you a lot of confidence,” she said. “We played really well and I'm really happy about that. It feels good.”

With the Wildcats earning the No. 1 seed in the sectional, and Chippewa Falls No. 2, Thursday night’s match may have been a preview of the sectional final, which is scheduled for Saturday, Oct. 30, in Chippewa Falls. Kealy said that added to the importance of Thursday night’s win.

“We needed something to make the girls focus back in on what we've got to prepare for,” she said. “So they did that, and I think having an environment like this helps when we get down the road in the playoffs, because we're going to see each other again, likely in the sectional finals, and that'll be at their place and it will be a totally different environment. I think this just got everybody excited for that.”

The Wildcats and Cardinals both received first round byes by virtue of their seeds and will open the postseason Saturday night, Oct. 23. River Falls will host either No. 8 Eau Claire North or No. 9 New Richmond while Chippewa Falls will face either No. 7 Hudson or No. 10 Stevens Point. The sectional semifinals are scheduled for Thursday, Oct. 28, in Wausau.

The Wildcats, now 21-1 overall and ranked No. 5 in the state, will be trying to qualify for the WIAA State Tournament for the sixth straight season. And just like winning the BRC title, Graetz said getting to state is an expectation.

“We expect to go,” she said. “We're gonna get to Green Bay, we're gonna do good, and we're gonna kick some butts. I'm excited.”

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