Wildcats have the 'It' factor, will compete at state tournament

By Joe Peine
Posted 11/2/23

The River Falls Wildcats beat the Eau Claire Memorial Old Abes in four sets in the sectional round of the playoffs on Saturday, Oct. 28 at Eau Claire North High School, the “neutral” …

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Wildcats have the 'It' factor, will compete at state tournament


The River Falls Wildcats beat the Eau Claire Memorial Old Abes in four sets in the sectional round of the playoffs on Saturday, Oct. 28 at Eau Claire North High School, the “neutral” site.

Playing at a neutral site didn’t seem very neutral when River Falls had to play Eau Claire in Eau Claire, albeit at a different high school. This wasn’t a problem for the Wildcats though, as they still punched their ticket to the state level of competition in Green Bay where the last eight remaining teams will compete to be the D1 state champions.

The intensity was real from the jump. They say an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, and at this stage, every point seems like it’s worth a set earlier in the season.

The Wildcats started pounding the ball over the net early and often with outside hitter Amelie Pankonin putting in a lot of work early to get River Falls on the board. Eau Claire put up a couple unanswered points of their own, but a long volley that ended in a dominant kill by outside hitter Maddi Range evened the score.

This set continued to essentially go point for point as it became a battle of who would make less mistakes. It was all tied up at 14 before the Wildcats were able to really start pulling away, going on a 5-1 run and forcing Eau Claire to use its first timeout at 19-15.

When play resumed, River Falls struck first as Pankonin got a strong-armed kill followed by chants of “drop the hammer” from the Wildcats faithful that had made the journey down to support the team. The Old Abes, who play a very tight and precise type of volleyball, quit making any mistakes at all after that, taking six of the next nine points to force a River Falls timeout to try to protect a slim 22-21 lead.

The Wildcats came out of the play stoppage rejuvinated, and the set went back to being a point for point battle of who would blink first. At 25-25, the game went into extras as team’s need to win by two. River Falls showed why this is the team with the “it” factor as, even though they were the underdog, they were the ones that showed up and showed out with the game on the line to take set one, 27-25.

Eau Claire came in hot in set 2, taking a quick 10-5 lead. With things starting to get out of hand early for River Falls, they took their first timeout to reset and regroup. It didn’t help though, and things just kept getting worse.

Everything that could go wrong for the Wildcats did: balls that looked out all landed in, Eau Claire attacks took weird bounces off River Falls’ blocks, and even a ball off the ceiling rocketed down in the middle of several Wildcats and landed without an attempt at a save. So, at 14-6, they had to take their second and final timeout of the set.

The Abes kept pulling away though. Every shot landed in for them, and every attempt at a kill that the River Falls hitters put over the net was blocked and returned. It was a set where power met technique, and technique got all the right bounces, and Eau Claire pulled out to a 17-6 lead.

Interestingly, a botched call by the line judge that was overturned seemed to reinvigorate the Wildcats, and although they still lost the set, they took 10 of the next 18 points for a final score of 25-16.

That momentum didn’t seem to have carried into set 3 at first as Eau Claire jumped out to a 3-1 lead, but River Falls rallied to take the lead at 4-3. The Abes kept making great plays, bringing points back from the brink and returning them over the net, but the Wildcats relentlessly poured it on, claiming an 8-5 lead.

Whereas set 2 felt like an uphill battle the whole time, set 3 had River Falls in the driver’s seat for most of it, with the Old Abes playing on their heels. The Wildcats gained a point on them at 12-8 before a string of improbable bounces and a long volley went Eau Claire’s way, tying it up at 12-12, forcing a River Falls timeout.

They followed that up with a serve from libero (defensive specialist) Olivia Doerre that might as well be called an ace for how little the Abes were able to do with it. Two more points in quick succession resulted in an Eau Claire timeout at 15-12. River Falls kept pulling away anyway, taking four of the next five points to make it 19-13.

The Abes started gaining ground as a couple of small Wildcat mistakes, a painted corner by the Abes and another ball off the ceiling granting an unearned point allowed Eau Claire to pull within two at 22-20. When the Abes got within one, River Falls took its second timeout.

Long volleys are only worth one point, but the winner of them gains an in-game victory of morale. So, when play resumed with both teams refusing to say die, it seemed as if whoever scored the next point would have the momentum. Pankonin and Range kept pounding it over the net, and eventually, the Abes blinked first.

Serve in hand with a two-point lead and two to go, Eau Claire made another mistake as their outside hitter sent a kill shot out of bounds giving the Wildcats a 24-21 lead. They didn’t score again, and River Falls took a 2-1 lead.

By set 4, it became clear what an anomaly set 2 was. It went back and forth 4-4, 7-7 and so on. Each team had a couple of mini runs, Eau Claire taking a 12-9 lead before River Falls closed the gap at 12-13. Ava Peters kept making plays at the net throughout and putting the pressure on the Abes to make plays.

When the serve rotation hit Pankonin again, that’s when River Falls made their move. She dropped in some of the crispest serves of the night, and the Wildcats took the lead 15-13.

No set came easily for the Wildcats and their fans as it quickly became 16-all. Then it was 18-all and 20-all.

When the score hit 22-22, Pankonin’s turn to serve came back through the lineup and the game seemed to teeter on the brink of inevitability as River Falls’ momentum became palpable. Eau Claire must have sensed it too, as they immediately took a timeout after her first serve landed for a point.

With how strong the Wildcats had been playing in this configuration, keeping Pankonin at the serve in this moment was almost as important as the next point itself, which they scored bringing up game point at 24-22. River Falls just needed one of the next two points for a victory, and they got it on the very next serve.

Head Coach Sara Kealy said that while this team isn’t the most conventional team she’s taken to state, they play with heart, and they play as one.

“We weren’t as technically sound as Memorial, but I think our kids play really well for each other. I think our culture, our chemistry, and the trust that they've built is what's able to allow them to prevail when they need to,” Kealy said. “When we were down 9-1 against Hudson last round, I didn't know if we would be the team from early September that would just roll at that point because we just didn't know how to compete. And then they came back and won.”

Doerre, or Goose as her teammates call her (which is in no way a reference to the Top Gun volleyball scene, that’s just a happy coincidence), said this team’s success doesn’t come from pristine technical savvy but from within.

“We're such a young team. Like obviously you can tell on the court that we make the little mistakes that shouldn't be made, but it's just focusing back in and knowing it's on us. I think that's what we did to win this match,” Doerre said. “We came into this with a mindset of like we're the 6 seed, we don't know how we got here, but we’re just going to go out there and play our hardest and give it our all.”

Peters recognizes the difficulty of what they’ve been able to accomplish.

“There was like a lot of just going back and forth because we both wanted it so much. Memorial is such a good team. They made some really great plays, and they were a tough team to beat. We really had to focus and lock in,” Peters said. “I'm just so excited and so proud of us to continue at state and to say that our season’s not over when everybody expected it to be over like a week ago.”

With this win, River Falls will advance to the quarterfinals in Green Bay, a place they were in for four straight seasons between 2017-2020 but never won it all. As the lowest seed in the tournament, River Falls will draw its hardest matchup first against the reigning champions, the Divine Savior Holy Angels who are 44-1 on the year. So, if the Wildcats can come away with a victory on Thursday, they have a real chance of going all the way.

Yes, it’s not one of the loaded teams that they’ve had in the past, but those teams didn’t take home the championship either. Maybe this scrappy version of the Wildcats that everyone thought shouldn’t/wouldn’t/couldn’t even be here is the version that River Falls needs to finally do the dang thing. We’ll find out just how big that ever intangible “it” factor is that makes a team more than just the sum of its players when Keally’s most unconventional team plays for it all this weekend.

“It'd just be so insane,” Kealy said. “When I've had teams where I'm like, we're stacked, we’re loaded, and we don’t get it done. Then this team comes in and just blindsides everybody. That would be the best.”

River Falls Wildcats, Eau Claire Memorial Old Abes, volleyball, sectional, state tournament