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Prep Volleyball: Chi-Hi hangs tough with Big Rivers Conference kingpin River Falls in season opener
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Prep Volleyball | River Falls 3, Chi-Hi 1

Prep Volleyball: Chi-Hi hangs tough with Big Rivers Conference kingpin River Falls in season opener

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River Falls at Chi-Hi volleyball 9-15-20

Chi-Hi's Jazmine Johnson swings for a kill against River Falls on Tuesday evening at Chi-Hi.

The Chi-Hi volleyball team wasted no time showing how it has improved compared to last season.

The Cardinals gave four-time defending Division 1 state tournament qualifier River Falls plenty to handle as the Wildcats topped the Cardinals in four sets (13-25, 25-27, 25-22, 12-25) on Tuesday in the season opener for both teams at Chi-Hi.

“I’m very, very happy with how we played,” Chi-Hi coach Luke Heidtke said. “I thought that first set (we) came out and kind of were nervous. It was pretty obvious we had nerves and were working through things on our own side, but we’re working on our process on our own side. That’s one thing that we talked about. Let’s not worry what’s happening on the other side, let’s worry about our side, let’s worry about our process and be grateful we’re playing and go kick butt, and I thought we really did that set two and three.”

Chi-Hi (0-1, 0-1) came out of the gates slow in the first set before turning up the intensity in set two with five of the first six points. River Falls closed the gap and the teams traded points before five points in a row from the Wildcats (1-0, 1-0) tied set two at 22. Chi-Hi briefly took a 23-22 advantage on a block from Jennah Johnson, but the Wildcats scored five of the final seven points with Anna Wolf’s kill punctuating a set-two win.

But following the loss in set two the Cardinals came to life and grabbed a 9-3 lead following Amber Thaler’s kill. The Cardinals maintained the advantage throughout the rest of the set, but had to overcome a late River Falls rally as the Wildcats closed to within two twice at 23-21 and 24-22 before Samantha Perlberg capped the set victory for the Cardinals with a kill.

After an even start, set four belonged to the Wildcats as six straight points pushed River Falls to a 10-4 advantage and they kept the foot on the gas the rest of the way to clinch the win.

“Even in set four, things weren’t going well, and that’s going to happen,” Heidtke said. “When you play a sport, physically things won’t go well. It’s going to happen sometimes. But what I really commented on in our last huddle was there were players who were changing their attitudes and their demeanor to fit what we’re working on every day, and last year a lot of those players wouldn’t have done that. That personal growth is huge to see.”

Thaler led the Cardinals with nine kills, followed closely by eight from Perlberg and freshman Paige Steinmetz. Maddy Bauer had 36 assists, Perlberg delivered five aces and tied with Steinmetz for the team lead in digs with 10 each. Jennah and Jasmine Johnson had four solo blocks each and combined for four block assists.

“For the first game of the season I thought we worked really well as a team,” Thaler said. “I thought we kept up really well. We didn’t get in our heads, and we didn’t let that get us down after (not) winning the first game. We came back, almost won the second game and won the third game.”

The competitive contest was a sharp contrast to last season’s meeting where the Wildcats routed the Cardinals on their way to an unbeaten Big Rivers Conference championship and trip to the Division 1 state semifinals.

“We are really proud with where we’re at right now,” Chi-Hi senior Jazmine Johnson said. “Yes, we did lose. However we just played River Falls which beat us super hard last year. They put in their JV against us last year and I think we did really well, especially in the second set. We fought really hard which I really liked.”

The two teams match up again on Thursday in River Falls.

Tuesday’s season opener also marked the first contest of the year with modified rules emphasizing safety and cleanliness to help combat the spread of COVID-19. Game attendance was limited to parents of players, face coverings were mandatory for fans, coaches and players and social distancing was required to those in attendance.

The bench seats for the Cardinals were staggered for additional spacing while volleyballs were switched out sanitized after each point and teams did not change benches after each set and the players and Heidtke were thankful for being able to get the season going.

“It still felt like any other game,” Thaler said. “I was just so focused on the game. The intensity was still there.”

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