MARCH SADNESS

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By: 
Rob Reischel
The Resch Center in Green Bay was virtually empty last week after the WIAA decided to cancel the girls state basketball tournament due to concerns over the spread of COVID-19./Photo courtesy of Wissports

This was not the way it was supposed to end.

Josie Lemirande and her Middleton girls basketball teammates dreamed of hoisting a gold ball at the WIAA Division 1 state tournament in Green Bay last weekend.

Instead, roughly 19 hours before the Cardinals’ state semifinal game with Oconomowoc, Lemirande heard a knock on her hotel door.

“We were all sleeping,” said Lemirande, who was sharing a room with teammates Sitori Tanin, Karina Bursac and Kendall Roquet. “Nobody wanted to get the door, so I finally did. And I as I was going there, I just had a bad feeling.”

With good reason.

The WIAA made the difficult decision of canceling all remaining winter sports — including the girls’ state basketball tournament — due to concerns over the spread of COVID-19. And now, several Cardinals were at the door with the heartbreaking news.

Middleton was the No. 1 seed at the tournament and brought arguably its best-ever team to state. Instead, the Cardinals had the plug pulled on their tremendous year.

“I was just about to fall asleep, and at first, I didn't really know what was happening,” Tanin said. “Right when they told me, I was kind of confused and couldn’t believe it. Then I called my Mom and started bawling on the phone.”

Lemirande — and the rest of the Cardinals — were just as devastated.

“It was just horrible,” Lemirande said. “It was just like a shot to the heart, just devastating.

“Nobody wants to end on a loss, but I’d rather end a season that way than like this. It was just devastating.”

The news capped a topsy-turvy few days for the Cardinals.

Middleton, the top-ranked team in the state, experienced the ultimate high on March 7 when it rallied from a 13-point deficit and edged No. 2 Madison Memorial, 61-58, in a sectional final. Many believed the winner of that game would eventually become state champions, and the Cardinals were anxious to prove those folks right.

“It was a terrific group,” said Middleton coach Jeff Kind. “They were ready to go and try winning a state title.”

Shortly before the Cardinals left for state, the WIAA announced a policy that limited attendance at the tournament to 88 tickets per team, two supervisors and a limit of 22 team personnel.

That meant each girl — and coach — had just four tickets available to them and countless people that wanted to attend the game.

“That made the whole trip up there tough,” Tanin said. “There were tears about that before we ever left Middleton.”

The Cardinals practiced that night at Oshkosh West High School and had a team dinner where they watched one of the Division 4 semifinal games. Even then, Kind had an uneasy feeling.

“At our team dinner, I told our assistant coaches I’m not convinced we’ll be playing,” Kind said. “I think the girls expected to play since we were already up there and we were watching as some of other games went on. They all kind of figured they’d get to play.”

That changed, though, just after 11 p.m.

Kind was sound asleep, as was much of his team. But a handful of girls that were still awake saw on social media that the tournament had been cancelled.

The WIAA had called an emergency meeting after the first day of the tournament ended, and with several other states across the country cancelling their tournaments, the WIAA decided to do the same.

“I want the student-athletes and their coaches to know that your school leaders, the WIAA Executive Staff, our committees and the Board of Control have done everything imaginable to try to provide and preserve these opportunities for you,” WIAA Executive Director Dave Anderson said that night. “However, we want and need to be responsible in helping the global and state efforts to stem the tide and spread of this virus.”

Most of the Cardinals understood the decision, but that didn't make it any easier.

Middleton’s players stayed up until 3 a.m., laughing, crying and trying to enjoy their final moments together.

“We just talked with each other and tried to make it a little more happy,” Tanin said. “We tried to make it a better memory.”

The only memory the Cardinals wanted, though, was that of a state title. And led by a brilliant eight-person senior class that included Tanin, Lemirande, Roquet, Bursac, Evie Coleman, Berkley Smith, Megan Schwartz and Makenzie Hodson, a championship certainly seemed within reach.

All of those girls except Coleman played together since the third or fourth grade. And now, they had every intention of becoming the first-ever girls basketball team from Middleton to win a state title.

“Most of us have played together since the first time we were on a team together,” Lemirande said. “And everything just clicked with us. They’re my best friends. I’m so sad.”

Tanin agreed.

“I think that’s what made it that much worse is in my head, this was going to be our year,” she said. “We were going to do it for coach. We were going to go down in history. Instead, we made history another way.”

Despite the bizarre ending, the Cardinals know they have a bevy of accomplishments to be proud of.

Middleton finished the year 25-1 overall and on a 20-game winning streak. The Cardinals captured a share of the Big Eight Conference and won two of three games from a terrific Madison Memorial team. And Middleton reached the state tournament for the 12th time in school history and the ninth time since 2008.

“The thing about this team, I guess, is that they always rose to the occasion,” Kind said. “No matter what was going on, they had the feeling they were still in the game and they’d rise to the occasion. It was a special season. It was a special team.”

Added Tanin: “I’m just going to remember the heart and effort of everyone on the team. No matter if we were on the court or off the court, we were like a family. Our connection with coach was so important. He had trust in us and helped us get so far. It was a great year.”

Unfortunately for the Cardinals — and the rest of the state — it’s a year where they’ll always look back and ask, ‘What if?’

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