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Wisconsin-River Falls players watching the 2017 NCAA tournament selection show. (Nicole Haase)
Wisconsin-River Falls players watching the 2017 NCAA tournament selection show. (Nicole Haase)

Wisconsin River-Falls senior Dani Sibley recalled a season earlier in her career where the players were nervous about getting a bid despite coach Joe Cranston assuring them they didn’t have to worry. The players were nervous and then they were the last team named during the show, prolonging the agony that much longer. None of that was in evidence Monday as the Falcons gathered to watch the NCAA tournament selection show.

Though they were as sure as they could be of their place in the tournament, Sibley admitted the whole thing was still a bit tense.

“We can only control so much; it’s kind of nerve-wracking, but we’ve put ourselves in the best situation to get a bid and be successful this year,” she said.

It was clear from the way that Carly Moran sat at the end of a bench with her hands fidgeting and a knee bouncing as the screen counted down that Sibley wasn’t the only one feeling nervous.

It was a somewhat novel display of humanity from two players that have had dominant seasons. Sibley won the D-III scoring crown, finishing the season with 24 goals and 30 assists for 54 total points. She’s added nine more in the postseason. She’s averaging 2.25 points a game and has five game-winning goals for the Falcons as well as seven power-play and four short-handed goals.

The scoring leader board this season has been topped by groups of successful teammates; Kayla Meneghin and Melissa Sheeran at Plattsburgh and Kristin Lewick, Kaylyn Schroka, Sarah Scherub, and Brooke Lupi at Adrian all sit among the top eight scorers in the country.

Sibley is joined by Moran, who ended the regular season with 46 points and has added five more in the postseason.

Maybe most impressive about the two scorers is that they each accomplished those numbers on separate lines for most of the season. It wasn’t a matter of linemates giving and taking, but instead these two helped improve the level of play of the players around them.

That selflessness is part of what’s made Wisconsin-River Falls so successful. Neither player wanted to take credit for leading the team nor talk about individual accomplishments.

“Every single person on our team has such an important roll; it’s not always about who scores the most or who gets recognition,” said Moran. “It’s about blocking shots and getting in deep; it’s winning battles. It’s about the little things that people don’t always recognize that’s really important. Every single person on this team has such a good work ethic and positive attitude and when that all comes together, it’s something super special.”

It’s something Sibley noticed early on in the season. In her senior year, she knew from the beginning what she wanted to accomplish, but it wasn’t until the team was on the ice for a few weeks that she began to understand what a special group of players had been amassed.

“I had high expectations for this team,” she said. “We’d been successful in the past and I knew we brought in a lot of freshmen. After the first few games I thought to myself, ‘Wow this is a team who wants it.’ We work hard at practice; we have a lot of positive energy. Early in the season I could kind of tell that this could be the team that really brings us all the way to the end and could be really successful.”

Coach Cranston wasn’t quite as effusive, saying that he always has high expectations and a higher bar for his player to reach, but admitted he knew the Falcons were a pretty good team before they’d ever even stepped on the ice.

“It is about every kid and everybody has contributed this year. There have just been a lot of contributions in a lot of ways from a lot of different people and a really good attitude from so many kids and that’s why you end up with 26 wins…. We have lots of kids that play really great defense. Even though we have Dani and Carly getting the goals, it’s all those other kids that keep the puck out of the net that gets the win for you.”

Now the Falcons prepare to host Gustavus Adolphus in the NCAA quarterfinal — the next step on the road to their ultimate goal — playing in the national championship game, but they players are trying hard to only focus on the next game, the next period, and not get too far ahead of themselves.

With just two losses this season, the confidence at Wis.-River Falls was already pretty high, but defeating rival Wisconsin-Eau Claire in overtime to win the WIAC championship definitely gave the team a bit of a boost. The Blugolds were the only team to beat Wis.-River Falls this year, so getting the final result was definitely a point of pride, but the way the Falcons won might be the most important lesson the players take away.

“Anything is possible,” said Sibley. “This is a team who will not take no for an answer. We were down twice to Eau Claire. They’re a good team and it’s hard to battle back, but no one got discouraged. Everyone just kept working hard and playing their game. That’s huge. We can’t get down on ourselves. We just have to stay positive and look ahead and just carry that energy in to these next few games.”