Soccer Cards continue upward ascent

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By: 
Rob Reischel
Zachary Whritenour (24) and Middleton's boys soccer team have vaulted to No. 2 in the state rankings./Times-Tribune photo by Mary Langenfeld

There was plenty of enthusiasm from Day One.

There was excitement, eagerness, anticipation.

But even for the greatest optimist inside Middleton’s boys soccer program, the Cardinals’ remarkable start has to come as a surprise.

Middleton won two more Big Eight Conference games last week, rolling past Madison East, 4-2, last Tuesday and besting Madison La Follette, 5-0, last Thursday. The Cardinals improved to 8-0-1 on the season and 4-0 in the Big Eight Conference.

After losing 15 seniors, no one inside the program knew exactly what to expect. How about a magnificent start that has the Cardinals ranked No. 2 in the latest Wisconsin Soccer Coaches Association poll.

“We were optimistic coming into the season, but never expected to find success this quickly,” Middleton senior defender Jordan Grapentine said. “We lost a ton of seniors. Replacing that many players is never easy.

“Thankfully, Middleton has always had a deep program and this year has been no exception. We’ve had guys step in and make plays wherever the team has needed them.”

Cardinals senior defender Roger Waleffe agreed.

“We did have a number of seniors last year that are no longer on the team, but we have also have lots of young talent,” Waleffe said. “I have been impressed with everyone on the team this year. Everyone works hard together and I think that speaks to our start this year.”

Last week was a continuation to Middleton’s sensational start.

The Cardinals jumped out to a 2-0 lead against the Purgolders when Nick Bilodeau scored in the second minute and Braden Allen had a goal in the 34th minute. East responded with goals in the 48th and 59th minute, and to the surprise of many, tied the game, 2-2.

But Allen scored again in the 65th minute and Ivan Khamenka scored in the 83rd minute as the Cardinals survived.

“Our East game was tougher than it should have been,” Middleton coach Ben Kollasch said. “East is a scrappy team that is always looking to overachieve and we let them hang around well into the second half.

“The ability was always there for us. We just didn’t focus and lock into our game until we got into a tough spot.”

Middleton responded with an impressive performance against the Lancers, scoring four second half goals and cruising to the win.

Allen scored on a penalty kick in the 14th minute to give Middleton a 1-0 edge. It stayed that way until the 57th minute when Bilodeau scored on an assist from senior midfielder Devin Ott to make it 2-0.

Allen’s goal in the 62nd minute made it 3-0. Then Noah Steiner and Khamenka scored before things ended.

“La Follette was one of our best games of the season so far,” Kollasch said. “We really put together a full 90 minutes of play with very few errors and lots of great chances. We have a long way to go to hit on all cylinders the way we would like to, but this was a big step forward for us.”

Middleton’s fast start has vaulted it from a team flying under the radar to one that’s now firmly in the spotlight. Milwaukee Marquette tops the state ranking, but the Cardinals have been on a steady rise and jumped to No. 2 this week.

To date, Middleton’s players seem to be handling the extra attention with aplomb.

“We were all very excited to see us ranked so high and getting the recognition we deserve,” Ott said. “But we all know that it is just a number and it puts a bigger target on our back, so we just have to keep performing and taking care if business.”

Grapentine agreed with his teammate.

“Yeah I'm not going to lie, we were all pretty excited when we saw ourselves in the state rankings,” Grapentine said. “It's always nice to receive recognition for hard work.

“However, our goal for the season isn’t to be ranked in early September. It’s to win the Big Eight Conference. Our state ranking is just reinforcement that we are on the path to achieving this goal. It may put a bit of a target on our back, but I believe that the added competition will bring out the best in our team and will ultimately prepare us to make the deep playoff run that I think we can make.”

There have three major keys to the Cardinals’ sensational start.

One, Middleton’s offense has been more explosive than any time in recent memory. The Cardinals have 43 goals in their first nine games (4.8 average).

“I've never been on a team that can score as effectively as we have this year,” Grapentine said. “It starts with our outside backs getting into the attack, is fueled by our creative center mids, and is polished by the speed and finishing ability of our outside mids and forwards. It's just fun to make the ball move around like we have been.”

Two, the newcomers have stepped in and contributed from the start. That group has been fueled by a gifted sophomore class that includes Allen, Brendon Martin, Ryan Peyton and Christopher Geanon.

And third, Middleton’s bench is extremely deep, which has helped the Cardinals wear down their foes.

“This year I can say that I could put any player on my roster into the game and have confidence that they can excel and thrive at the varsity level,” Kollasch said. “Senior to sophomore they are ready to play in pressure situations and many of them can fill in at multiple positions at that level. That creates a great atmosphere of competition around the team.

“Sophomores are pushing seniors for playing time, and a week later seniors are pushing sophomores for playing time. That makes my job really tough, but for all the right reasons and it proves we have the material we need to penetrate deep into the postseason.”

That’s certainly the goal for these Cardinals. But everyone knows it won’t be easy.

Big Eight foes Madison West and Madison Memorial are ranked No. 3 and 4, respectively, in the latest state poll. And both teams are in Middleton’s sectional.

The rest of the schedule is lined with challenges. But Middleton certainly seems ready to handle each and every obstacle.

“Our fast start this year was definitely unexpected to most people, especially since we lost many seniors,” Ott said. “But the team wasn't too surprised because we are talented in many positions and have a very explosive and dangerous offense.”

Added Waleffe: “This team has been a ton of fun so far. I am very happy with how hard everyone works for themselves and the team.”

And right now, that team is the surprise of the state.

• On deck: Middleton is at Sun Prairie Tuesday at 7 p.m. The Cardinals travel to Madison Memorial Thursday at 7 p.m. for a conference showdown, then are at the Muskego Invitational Friday and Saturday.

 

WISCONSIN SOCCER COACHES ASSOCIATION POLL

Division 1

1. Marquette

2. Middleton

3. Madison West

4. Madison Memorial

5. Green Bay Preble

Honorable mention: Beloit Memorial, Menomonee Falls, Eau Claire Memorial, Kettle Moraine.

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