Victories on and off court
To call the Northwestern volleyball team's recent run through the Wisconsin playoffs a feel-good story might be underplaying the achievement. The Tigers didn't reach the Division 2 state tournament -- they fell in five games to Ellsworth in a Sec...
To call the Northwestern volleyball team's recent run through the Wisconsin playoffs a feel-good story might be underplaying the achievement.
The Tigers didn't reach the Division 2 state tournament -- they fell in five games to Ellsworth in a Sectional 1 semifinal last Thursday -- but the fact that they came as close as they did is a testament to the will of a group of high school girls and their coach in overcoming long odds.
It's also a testament to a teenager who didn't get a chance to do what she really wanted to do: play her senior season.
But Rita Ronchi may have ended up playing a bigger role for the Tigers off the court than she could have in her position as a middle hitter on the court.
Returning home from a Junior Olympic volleyball tournament June 4, Rita was critically injured in an automobile accident. Her most severe injuries included brain damage, collapsed lungs, a broken left arm and the loss of her right leg above the knee.
Rita's situation was so grave, she originally was given a 1-percent chance of surviving.
Volleyball, at that point, was the furthest thing from her teammates' minds. They visited her in the hospital and joined the Maple and Poplar communities in holding fundraising events to help defray the enormous medical bills her family faced.
But the effervescent Ronchi made a miraculous recovery, and even joined her team at its home opener Sept. 7. The inspiration she provided was evident that night and for the rest of the season.
The team won its first seven matches and finished second in the prestigious Esko Tournament. All the proceeds of that event were donated to a fund for Rita, who stayed for the entire daylong tournament despite being in the midst of strenuous rehabilitation.
"She had that tired look and I asked her if she was going to go home,'' Esko coach Christy Lind said. "She said, 'Nope, I'm staying for the whole thing.' You could see how all the girls lit up when Rita came into the gym."
Though they missed their star player, the Tigers went 23-4 in the regular season, won the Heart O' North Conference for only the third time in 31 years and withstood a pair of tension-filled five-game matches in the region playoffs to advance to the section semifinals for only the second time in school history.
Yet somewhere along the way, those grieving girls realized something they may not have been aware of previously: this was a pretty good team even without Rita in the lineup. Megan Severson set a school single-season set assists record and Nicole Hughes broke the school mark for digs in a single season.
"I think it was huge in the offseason and the early stages of the season,'' coach Charlie Hessel said. "But then the girls realized what they had and what they could achieve. They wanted to win for Rita, obviously, but later it was more about themselves."
The miracle run came to an end Thursday in Amery. Northwestern battled back from a 2-0 deficit to force a fifth game against Ellsworth, but lost 15-9.
"There were a lot of tears, but I pointed out to the girls that our goal, even before Rita got hurt, was to be above .500 and there we were suffering only our fifth loss of the season in Amery,'' Hessel said of his team that set a school record with 26 victories. "I tried to give them some perspective and that there was nothing to be disappointed about."
More than wins and losses, the players learned a valuable lesson in life. That may be the biggest victory in this tale.
"In society today everyone wants to point fingers at each other, but when we made mistakes that wasn't the case,'' Hessel said. "They will never take anything for granted. They realized you can make plans, but life is not always going to go by the plans you made."
RICK WEEGMAN covers prep sports for the News Tribune. He can be reached at (218) 723-5302, (800) 456-8181 or e-mailed at firstname.lastname@example.org