Wildcats lose in quarterfinals at state tournament

By Joe Peine
Posted 11/9/23

Despite high hopes coming out of sectionals, the River Falls Wildcats were defeated in three sets by the Divine Saints Holy Angels at the state tournament at the Resch Center in Green Bay on …

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Wildcats lose in quarterfinals at state tournament


Despite high hopes coming out of sectionals, the River Falls Wildcats were defeated in three sets by the Divine Saints Holy Angels at the state tournament at the Resch Center in Green Bay on Thursday.

The Holy Angels, who were 44-1 on the season going into the state tournament, came out fast and fierce, rushing out to a 4-0 lead. River Falls picked it up after that, playing the Angels nearly even getting seven points to the next nine of DSHA to bring the score to 13-7 after 20 points, where the Wildcats called their first timeout.

Contrary to helping, that’s when things actually got out of hand for River Falls as the Angels took nine of the next 12 points resulting in the Wildcats using their last timeout to try to regroup down 22-10. It was too late for a comeback though, and they fell 25-12.

Outside hitter Maddy Range got the serve first in the second set, but the point went the other way. The Angels were off and running again, taking six of the first seven points before River Falls took its first timeout of the set.

River Falls got the serve back, and defensive specialist Savannah Saxton made her position title look like a misnomer by immediately dishing up an ace to make it 9-3. Unfortunately, DSHA took 10 of the next 12 after that, resulting in the Wildcats use of their second timeout down 19-5. The Angels went 6-1 coming out of the play stoppage and took set two by a score of 25-6.

Set three began like the other two with the Angels jumping out in front, this time taking a quick 6-2 lead before really pouring it on and pulling out to an 11-2 lead. River Falls took its first timeout to try and reset for one last ditch effort to mount a comeback. It helped only marginally, and at game point, the Wildcats took their final timeout.

The Angels took the win moments later at 25-11.

During that last timeout, with game point and the almost inevitability of defeat on deck, Head Coach Sara Kealy called the team over to tell her team to take this moment to think about how far they’ve come and what it means to be there.

“I really wanted them to stop and absorb the moment. When you come here and you play at the Resch, and you lose the quarterfinal round, it just happens to happen so fast,” Kealy said. “Then you're looking back to try to remember what the experience was versus stopping and kind of looking up into the stands and seeing the parents, the people from the community and the students that are in our section that really followed us throughout this journey and when we gained momentum throughout the playoffs and how proud they were of us.”

As good as DSHA played, it didn’t seem that River Falls was totally outmatched. The Wildcats made a number of mistakes and miscues that were uncharacteristic of them. Saxton said it’s just hard when you have to play the champs as well as yourselves.

“On the court for the first set, all of us just played scared. I think it was a huge environment to play in that none of us on the court have played in before. So, we were just not all that composed,” Saxton said.

While their season didn’t end in a victory, the young Wildcats team got a good look at what they can expect going forward. Coach Kealy recognizes what a lesson in growth this is for her team.

“I think we were a little shell shocked at first, just with the environment. It’s one of those things where you want to stop the bleeding, you want to fix what's broken, but you don't know how. So, it's not a matter of not wanting to do it, it's a matter of maybe not knowing how to adjust. Some of that's because of what DSHA does on their side of the net, and then some of it is giving points away to the environment and your own mental game,” Kealy said. “Of all 13 of my players, only two of them have ever been here before, and they weren't on the court two years ago. So, it was a new experience for all of them.”

Hannah Jarocki is one of the three seniors leaving the team. She said the growth this year from the beginning to the end is the reason a 6-seed team made it all the way to Green Bay.

“Before the season, I had no idea who a lot of our freshmen that play really big roles on our team now were. I knew who our returners were, but I had no idea how the rest of our team was going to fill out. So, I think being able to play the way we have been playing recently, and all the people who have stepped up and taken on really big roles for us, has been really big,” Jarocki said.

Senior Brooklyn Bishop noted the growth and change of mindset this group had is part of what carried them.

“Right about playoffs we kind of hit like a part of our season where we hit a switch from ‘playing not to lose,’ and then to ‘just playing our game,’” Bishop said. “We came into a lot of those games being the underdog and a lower rank than a bunch of the teams. Then, in our sectional final, I would say they were playing not to lose, and we just played our game. That helped us a ton, and I think that was the main reason why we won that game.”

With 10 of 13 players returning to the team next year, history points to good things being on deck for River Falls in 2024.

“Last season was the first time we hadn't been here in six years, and it was the first time we hadn't won conference in seven years, but it was one of my favorite seasons because it was a rebuilding year for our culture. Last year was necessary for this year's team to be successful,” Kealy said. “The more you're here, the more comfortable you are, the more you know what the expectation is to compete. Our first year here in 2016, we got beat by Sun Prairie in four, and I felt like that was a win because we took a set off of them. Then the next year, we went to the finals. We wouldn't have had that experience in 2017, without 2016 being the steppingstone.”

This team was more than a footnote though; they’ve done something together that nobody thought they’d do and something that’s only ever been done once before, and that’s no small thanks to the leadership of seniors Bishop, Jarocki and Saxton.

“If my data person is correct, this is only the second time in the history of state girls’ volleyball that a 6-seed has made it to Green Bay,” Kealy said. “I think every match we've played, we've gone into with that mindset of we're here to win. And I do think that that's something that the legacy of our program has instilled in these girls, even without the level of on court experience. We've been here seven out of the last eight years, and that's not by accident. It’s because we want to win, and we want to compete.”

River Falls Wildcats, volleyball, state tournament, Resch Center, Green Bay