Boys spikers have high hopes

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Rob Reischel
Thomas Robson (right) and Middleton’s boys volleyball team begin their season Thursday./File photo

Ben White is one of the state’s best teachers of boys volleyball — both on and off the court.

White’s has led Middleton to the state tournament six times since 2006, guided the Cardinals to their only victories ever at state, and helped MHS win eight of the last nine Big Eight Conference titles.

White is always looking for ways to motivate his team, as well. And earlier this summer, he stumbled upon a passage he felt would resonate with his team.

“I read this great quote that said, ‘You can’t get to the top of the ladder in one step, but you can get to the bottom in one step,’ ” said White, whose team opens the season Thursday when it hosts Madison La Follette. “So we have to take a very simple approach and take the season step by step. If we do that hopefully we can reach some of the goals we set together.”

As always, the goals are sky high. Middleton returns a talented bunch, and has another batch of gifted players waiting in the wings.

But for the second straight season, Middleton was dealt a huge early season blow.

Senior middle blocker Jordan Futch, one of the top players in the state and a first-team all-Big Eight player in 2014, will likely miss the season with an injury. The 6-foot-7 Futch was just one of two players in Wisconsin chosen to play on the USA National team, but will now try getting healthy for club volleyball and track season.

“That is a huge blow to the team from an offensive standpoint,” White said. “Jordan has exploded athletically over the past 10 months and his best volleyball is ahead of him … that is if track doesn’t pass by volleyball.”

Middleton also has to replace all-state outside hitter James Caldwell, who set several school records last year and was also the Big Eight’s Player of the Year.

“He was a great player and leader and everyone around him became better because they had to play to his level,” White said. “We aren’t going to fill his shoes, but the best thing about high school athletics is every year is a fresh start.”

Even with the losses of Futch and Caldwell, Middleton should field another outstanding outfit.

Senior middle blocker Blake Sprecher is a terrific starting point. The 6-foot-8 Sprecher had 76 blocks last season, the third-most in school history, and will anchor the Cardinals’ defense.

“Blake is a huge presence at the net,” White said. “With he and Jordan together, we would have a duo that couldn’t be matched. Now we have to adjust somewhat on the offensive end, but defensively we will be fine.

“The opportunity for Blake is there this year for him to be dominant. We know he can shut down the other team. What we’ll need from him is about 10 kills a match this year. I think he can do it. We have the passing to help our setters run the show. We’ll need our hitters to deliver.”

The Cardinals also welcome back sophomore libero Thomas Robson, who was an honorable-mention all-conference player last season. Robson led the Cardinals with 260 digs a year ago and should be even better in 2015.

“As you would expect, Thomas is a little taller and a little stronger,” White said. “Thomas played club ball in Milwaukee this past offseason and he finally played with kids his age, as he has always had to play up ages due to lack of clubs in the Madison area. I think that gave him a ton of confidence to see where he is at and he became a leader. The back row will be his and he’ll be a leader on the court.”

Senior Kevin McMahon figures to be Middleton’s top option at outside hitter. The 6-foot-3 McMahon continues to grow, has a large wingspan and is a terrific leader.

“We’ll need to count on him a lot, but I think he can do it,” White said. “We aren’t asking anyone to put up James (Caldwell)-type numbers this year. “We’re looking for people to keep the ball in play and swing away when the opportunity presents itself and I think Kevin can do that.”

Senior Pace Balster, a 6-foot-5 jumping jack, will play somewhere on the front row. White just isn’t sure where quite yet.

“His vertical is explosive and when you are 6-foot-5 with an explosive leaping ability, there is a place for you in the front row,” White said. “The plan going into the season was to give Pace the right side, but now I don’t know if we keep him there or move him to middle or outside. Wherever he plays, he will surprise people.”

Seniors Jacob Ross and Chandler Squires — a pair of 6-foot-3 players — will vie for time at outside hitter.

Junior Ben Miller, who was called up to varsity at the end of the 2014 campaign, will definitely play in the back row. But White is determining right now if Miller can be an all-around player, too.

“He has surprised us at camps and during these first couple of days,” White said. “We’re looking forward to seeing what he can do versus others.”

Senior defensive specialist Kyle Bradley-Bartleson and senior setter Mathew Caamal will be in the Cardinals’ rotation.

Sophomore setter Andrew Lepage has impressed early. Juniors Cole Spitler, Nick Zeinemann and Louis Hinshaw will also fight for playing time.

“We still have high expectations out there for this team and program,” White said. “But the goal is still to be playing your best volleyball come November. We’ll probably try a whole bunch of different line-ups prior to that to see what we have on the squad.”

Middleton has dominated the conference for nearly a decade now.

The Cardinals are 92-4 in Big Eight matches since 2006 and have won 34 straight league matches in that time. So White knows the target on Middleton’s back is always large.

“We still know we are the team everyone is shooting for in conference,” White said. 

White is always thinking about the big picture, though. And that means making a mark at the state tournament.

Middleton hasn’t won a match at state since 2008. And in the Cardinals’ last three trips to state — including the last two years — Middleton has let 2-0 leads slip away in the state quarterfinals.

“The last three times we’ve been to state, we’ve won the first two games and lost the next three,” White said. “I always tell the boys, ‘If you were walking in a hallway and you turned a corner and around that corner someone was standing there and hit you with a 2-by-4, how many times would you walk around the corner? It feels like the last three times we’ve been hit over the head by a 2-by-4 at state. And I’m done with that feeling.”

A year ago, Middleton led Burlington, 2-0, at state, before seeing that lead slip away. Interestingly, Burlington has been moved into Middleton’s sectional — setting up a potential showdown on the way to state.

That should be another interesting subplot in what promises to be another thrilling season of Middleton volleyball.

“Burlington will still be a top team, but they are also the team that beat us at state,” White said. “I’m not going to lie and say that isn’t motivation. 

“I always laugh when I hear the Packers talk about how they aren’t motivated to beat the Seahawks because those games were in the past. If you are competitive and have a pulse, then you use that stuff as motivation. So the boys know if they want to make state, odds are high at some point they are going to have to beat Burlington. And we are embracing that.”


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