Middleton gunning for first-ever state title

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By: 
Rob Reischel
Middleton senior Kendall Roquet had a huge game against Madison Memorial last Saturday, helping Middleton’s girls basketball team win a sectional title and advance to state./Times-Tribune photo by Mary Langenfeld

Jeff Kind has taken Middleton’s girls basketball program to the state tournament a remarkable nine times since 2008. Overall, Kind has led the Cardinals to state 12 times since 1993.

In that stretch, Middleton has reached the state championship game four times, but is 0-4 in title contests.

Can 2020 finally be the year Kind and the Cardinals bring home a gold ball?

Middleton earned a trip back to state last Saturday with a thrilling 61-58 win over Madison Memorial in a WIAA Division 1 sectional final.

The Cardinals are now the No. 1 seed at the state tournament will battle fourth-seeded Oconomowoc in a state semifinal game on Friday at 6:35 at the Resch Center in Green Bay. Second-seeded and defending state champion Bay Port meets third-seeded Divine Savior Holy Angels in the other semifinal game.

The winners advance to the state championship game Saturday at approximately 8:15 p.m.

After years of coming up just short, these Cardinals hope to become the first team in school history to win a state title.

“It would mean the world,” senior point guard Josie Lemirande said. “I don’t think coach Kind has ever gotten a gold ball, so to bring that home for him — and for all of us — would be amazing.”

Middleton (25-1) heads to state on an incredible 20-game winning streak. But the Cardinals figure to have their hands full with Oconomowoc (22-4), which has won six straight games and eight of nine.

The Raccoons are led by 6-foot senior forward Olivia Sobczak, who returned this season after suffering a torn ACL a year ago. Sobczak leads Oconomowoc in both scoring (19.5) and rebounding (8.0) and was named first-team all-state by the Wisconsin Basketball Coaches Association on Monday.

Junior guard Elizabeth Cleary (9.7 ppg), senior guard Caitlin McArthey (7.4 ppg) and sophomore forward Natalie Gricius (6.2 ppg) help balance the floor.

“We’ve got a nice team,” Raccoons coach Bob Shea said. “There are some kids on this team that can play, have good attitudes, know their roles. It’s fun.”

If Middleton advances to the state championship game, it would meet a familiar foe — no matter who the opponent is.

Second-seeded Bay Port (24-2) defeated the Cardinals, 50-49, in last year’s state championship game. Bay Port’s Emma Nagel broke free on inbounds play and scored with just 2.4 ticks left to give the Pirates a dramatic win in that contest.

Nagel suffered a torn PCL just five games into this season. But the Pirates have a deep and balanced team that began the year 19-0 and survived an overtime thriller against Stevens Point in the sectional semifinals.

“The seniors on this team … they know what this means,” Bay Port coach Kati Coleman said. “A lot of them, they are not ready to be done playing. They enjoyed the state experience last year. No school here, no school there. I think that was a little added bonus. I’m extremely proud of them.”

Third-seeded DSHA and Middleton met in one of the most memorable games in state tournament history in 2015. That year, Dashers standout Arike Ogunbowale erupted for 55 points and DSHA defeated Middleton, 86-76, in overtime, in the state semifinals.

One night later, the Dashers defeated D.C. Everest by 35 points in the state finals.

This year’s Dashers (23-3) have won nine straight games and 17 of 18 overall. DSHA is a deadly three-point shooting team that has made 231 triples this year — nearly 100 more than any team in the Division 1 state field.

Middleton, of course, will bring a veteran group to state with an enormous amount of big game experience. The Cardinals were the No. 4 seed at last year’s state tournament, then stunned top-seeded Mukwonago before falling to Bay Port.

This year, Middleton has had a target on its back from day one.

The Cardinals posted impressive regular season wins over teams such as Waunakee, Arrowhead and Madison Memorial and took over the state’s No. 1 ranking in early February. Middleton then survived a sectional showdown against Madison Memorial in a game featuring the state’s No. 1 and 2 ranked teams.

“I think this was the best win I’ve ever been part of,” Middleton senior Kendall Roquet said after the Cardinals defeated Madison Memorial. “I think this was basically just like the state championship game. We’re the top two teams in the state, so this win means a lot to us. Memorial’s a great team, so it definitely boosts our confidence knowing what we can do.”

Senior forward Karina Bursac agreed.

“I am so, so lucky that this is my senior year,” Bursac said. “I was thinking after last year that, ‘Wow! That would have been a great year to end on by getting to the championship game.’ But now, hopefully we’ve got two more games left to win.”

That will be the goal this weekend, as the Cardinals try bringing home the first gold ball in school history.

“It would mean a lot to us as a program and to coach Kind,” Roquet said. “I think all the seniors really want to win this one. It’s our last year together and I think we can just win it all if we play like we did in the second half (against Memorial).”

• Unexpected help: Middleton doesn't have deepest bench this season. But the Cardinals got a lift from two reserves during their win over Madison Memorial.

Senior post Berkley Smith had four points and five rebounds and played key minutes after senior standout Sitori Tanin picked up her third foul with nearly 7 minutes left in the first half.

Junior guard Molly Gaab came off the bench and played terrific defense. Gaab drew a charge on Memorial’s Emmoni Rankins with 3:21 left in the game as Middleton was clinging to a 48-46 lead. Gaab also stopped a Memorial fast break earlier in the second half when she jumped into a passing lane and intercepted a pass.

“Molly Gaab did a hell of a job on defense for us,” Kind said.

• Following the script: Middleton and Madison Memorial entered the year as two of the state’s highest ranked teams. Both teams then lived up to their lofty billing, as each side entered the sectional finals with 24-1 records.

Middleton and Memorial shared the Big Eight Conference title and split its previous two games, before the Cardinals finished with the upper hand.

“It’s just amazing. It’s like the ultimate goal,” Kind said of getting past Memorial and back to state. “If you were scripting this season at the beginning of the season you would have said it’s going to be Memorial and Middleton in the sectional final.

“We had two great teams and one of the teams is going to go home disappointed. It doesn’t diminish their season and that would have been the same approach I took. It doesn’t diminish all of the things you did over the year.”

• Time management: Memorial coach Marques Flowers used his final timeout with 7:34 left in the game. That eventually proved costly for the Spartans, as there were several times in the final minutes where Memorial might have liked to stop the clock.

The most dramatic came when Memorial’s Leilani Kapinus drilled a three-pointer with 3 seconds left to pull the Spartans within 61-58. But because Memorial was out of timeouts, Middleton didn't have to inbound the ball and the game ended.

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