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Volleyball: Wildcats stay all in, team primed for continued success

Wildcat junior Halle Olson (7) blocks a tip attempt by Greendale's Angela Rinelli (10) in the second set of the Cats' 3-0 win over the Panthers in a WIAA Division 1 State Tournament quarterfinal match Thursday, Nov. 1, at the Resch Center in Green Bay. Bob Burrows / RiverTown Multimedia 1 / 2
Senior libero Mariah Marg handles a serve-receive in the third set of the Cats' 3-2 loss to Oconomowoc in the semifinals of the WIAA Division 1 State Tournament Friday, Nov. 2, at the Resch Center in Green Bay. Bob Burrows / RiverTown Multimedia 2 / 2

Almost lost in the disappointment of the Wildcat volleyball team's heartbreaking 3-2 loss to Oconomowoc in the semifinals of the WIAA Division 1 State Tournament Friday, Nov. 2, in Green Bay was the reality of just how special this season has been.

River Falls had to replace four senior starters from its 2017 state runner-up team—Izzy Barr, Marissa Stockman, Sam Krueger and Elise Banitt. Barr, Stockman and Banitt have all moved on to play college volleyball while Krueger is arguably the greatest female student-athlete River Falls High School has ever seen.

True to their motto, "Reload," seniors Mariah Marg and Sarah Langlois moved into the starting lineup and junior Maddi Kealy stepped in to replace Barr while freshman Haley Graetz joined returners Halle Olson, Emily Banitt and Anna Wolf on the front line.

Not many teams can lose four players the caliber of Barr, Stockman, Krueger and Elise Banitt and return to state the next year. But the Wildcats did. And they know how special it was.

"Absolutely," head coach Sara Kealy said in the press room of the Resch Center after last Friday night's loss. "I mean to lose Izzy, Marissa, Sam and Elise; a big chunk of our core. So we come back with Halle, Emily and Anna as our three returning starters and even here down the stretch losing Maddi, we were still making adjustments."

But Kealy knew the Wildcats had a deep roster with 12 talented players and strong senior leadership from Langlois and Marg.

"I was telling both Sarah and Maria, they should be really proud," she said. "They've been in this varsity program three seasons now, and we really utilized their experience and their athleticism. We lose those two this year, but obviously our goal is to be back and win state."

And why not? Juniors Olson and Emily Banitt, and sophomore Wolf, have already made verbal commitments to NCAA Division 1 institutions—Olson to Florida Atlantic University, Banitt to the University of Loyola-Chicago, and Wolf to the University of Minnesota. Maddi Kealy, the Cats' junior setter who missed the WIAA postseason with a broken foot, has verbally committed to the University of Minnesota-Duluth. Graetz, who earned All-Big Rivers Conference Second Team honors as a freshman, will also be back, along with junior Abby Doerre and sophomore Maddie Huppert, who stepped in at setter after Maddi Kealy went down.

Throw in supporting players like juniors Jenna Huppert and Abby Larson, and freshman Dani Lien, and the Wildcats show no signs of letting up any time soon.

That doesn't take away the sting of falling short of a state championship this year, but Olson, who has been a key player on all three Wildcat state qualifying teams, said every year is different. And that this year's team truly felt like family.

"I feel very blessed to be part of a team like this," she said. "Every single year you learn something different, and I've never been so excited about winning conference and making it to state than this year. It's really been a fun experience."

While talking about her team, Coach Kealy stole a line from legendary Olympic hockey coach Herb Brooks.

"These guys were born to be volleyball players," she said. "They're all here for a reason and they all serve a purpose on the team, both from a skill standpoint and from an emotional standpoint. And we wouldn't be the team that we are if it wasn't for this group of 12."

That group will shrink by two next season with the graduation of Langlois and Marg, and Kealy said both players will leave their marks on the program.

"My favorite quote from Sarah is, 'you make me happy,'" Kealy said to laughter in the press room. "It doesn't matter what I say or do or what decision I make, she always tells me I make her happy. So I'm really going to miss that next year.

"And Mariah has surprised me over the years that I've had her because she came in and she was really quiet and just kind of in the background," she added. "But as she has developed and matured over the years she's really stepped up. She's really learned to assert herself, as a leader and defensively. I'm going to miss them both a great deal."

Marg, who backed up Krueger as the team's libero for two seasons before stepping into the starting role this year, said she will cherish the memories of her time with the team.

"Coming (to state) the first year was just super fun," she said. "And to keep coming back and winning conference championships, it's been just such a blast."

Then she turned to her teammates in the back of the press room and gave one final thought.

"It's been special," she said. "I love every one of you and I'm going to miss you a lot."

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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