'Best of the best' for Middleton girls

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By: 
Rob Reischel
Middleton’s girls golf team won a state championship and shared the Times-Tribune's 'Team of the Year' honors./Times-Tribune photo by Mary Langenfeld

This was a year like no other.

The high school sports world came to a screeching halt on March 12 as the COVID-19 pandemic struck. And sports never started up again.

Still, the Times-Tribune would like to recognize the elite performances of the shortened 2019-’20 school year. This week, we’ll honor the top girls and next week we’ll pay homage to the boys.

 

Teams of the Year: Golf and basketball

Middleton’s girls golf team had a season it will never forget — and ended it with a state championship.

The Cardinals’ girls basketball team produced a similar season, only their state title chase was stopped by COVID-19.

The two groups that both captured the fancy of the community are the Times-Tribune’s Co-Teams of the Year.

Middleton’s golfers fired a two-day score of 651 at University Ridge, good for a 13-shot victory over runner-up Brookfield Central. Kettle Moraine, the 2018 champion, finished third at 665, while Hartland Arrowhead was fourth at 685.

“It means so much to us, because last year we were real underdogs and we pulled off second place,” Cardinals sophomore Ellie Frisch said. “So this year we came in wanting to win state the whole season. And we all just wanted to come out here and have a good time, and winning certainly helps that.”

Middleton, a slight underdog to Brookfield Central when the tournament began, was the most consistent team throughout the two-day event.

Senior captain Kate Meier, the Cardinals’ unquestioned leader, finished seventh individually with a 154. Junior Glenna Sanderson, who has battled bursitis in her feet for nearly two years, finished ninth overall with a 156 that included a sensational, second-day 77.

Frisch shot a final round 79 and finished in a tie for 18th place at 166. Middleton also counted a first-day 88 from senior Makenzie Hodson and a second round 87 from sophomore Milanne Dahmen.

Middleton led the field with 17 birdies, well ahead of runners-up Brookfield Central and Bay Port (11). The Cardinals also averaged a tournament-low 5.48 on the par-5 holes and 4.88 on par-4s.

“I’m so proud of the team,” said Meier, a Loyola (Ill.) recruit. “This has just been the ultimate goal, and for us, this is just a testament to all of our hard work and dedication, coming together and accomplishing what we worked so hard for.”

Middleton’s first two state championships — in 2009 under Jeff Kenas and in 2015 — both came by just one shot. And it appeared this year’s title race would be just as close.

The Cardinals shot an opening-round 330 and led surprising Hartland Arrowhead by one stroke. Kettle Moraine (333) and Brookfield Central (337) were dangerously close, too, and the four teams were all paired together for the final round.

“It certainly wasn’t one of our better scores, but I wasn’t too worried about anything,” Sanderson said. “We just wanted to regroup. It wasn’t our best day and we all knew we could come out and do better, which we did.”

They sure did.

Sanderson played the front nine at even-par, 36 and went on to shoot a magnificent 77. Sanderson made a 5-foot birdie putt at No. 9, birdied the par-3 12th and finished her round with just one double bogey — all while battling pain in her feet.

“There was no way I was missing this,” Sanderson said. “It hurts a lot, but it’s manageable. I wanted to be here, I wanted to play.”

Meier was about as steady as it gets over the two days. After her team-best 76 during the first round, Meier carded a pair of 39s on her way to a second round 78.

Frisch had a terrific second round in which she made three birdies, six bogeys and a pair of doubles. And Dahmen stayed out of trouble, notched a pair of birdies and fired an 87 from the No. 5 spot in the lineup.

The Cardinals played the first three holes in 5-over par, while Kettle Moraine and Arrowhead were both 10-over and Brookfield Central was plus-11. Middleton never looked back either, on its way to hoisting gold.

“It means so much,” Middleton coach Becky Halverson said. “It was an incredible group of girls and they really earned this. They deserve this so much.”

The same argument could be made for the girls basketball team — only they didn't get to finish what they started.

Middleton’s finished the year 25-1 overall, on a 20-game winning streak and qualified for the WIAA Division 1 state tournament for the 12th time in school history. Unfortunately for the Cardinals, their dream season ended when the state tournament was canceled due to fears surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic.

Middleton was already in its Green Bay hotel, preparing for its state semifinal game against Oconomowoc. But roughly 19 hours before that game was set to begin, the tournament was canceled.

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,” Middleton senior forward Sitori 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.”

Up until that point, Middleton had a season it will never forget.

The Cardinals captured a share of the Big Eight Conference and won two of three games from a terrific Madison Memorial team. Middleton, the 2019 state runners-up, was making its third trip to state in four years and its ninth appearance since 2008.

“The thing about this team, I guess, is that they always rose to the occasion,” Middleton coach Jeff 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.”

It sure was.

Middleton began the year with five straight wins. And after a loss in December at Madison Memorial, the Cardinals rolled off an incredible 20 straight wins.

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’m just going to remember the heart and effort of everyone on the team,” Tanin said. “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.”

 

Coach of the Year: Becky Halverson, girls golf

Halverson took over Middleton’s program in 2013, and at the time she said: “Our goals are going to be set high.”

It’s safe to say Halverson and the Cardinals keep reaching those goals.

Middleton won the WIAA Division 1 state tournament last fall, marking the second time the Cardinals have won state in Halverson’s seven seasons.

Middleton has been to state each year under Halverson and also has two second- and two-third place finishes in that time.

Middleton’s 2019 golf team carried the goal of a state championship with it for an entire year.

Middleton finished second at the 2018 state tournament. And as the Cardinals had dinner that night at Mid Town Pub in Middleton, they immediately outlined their objective for 2019.

“It was really at that moment that we said the goal was to win a state title this year,” said Cardinals senior captain Kate Meier. “We looked at the scores and that we were bringing back four girls and we knew winning state was realistic.”

As usual, Halverson was the Cardinals’ driving force from start to finish.

Middleton’s top five golfers all earned some form of all-state honors, as well as all-Big Eight Conference recognition. It marked just the second time in school history that all five Cardinal golfers were named all-state in the same season.

Middleton senior Kate Meier was named first-team all-state and first-team all-Big Eight. Meier was also the conference’s Player of the Year.

Junior Glenna Sanderson was named honorable mention all-Big Eight and second-team all-state, while sophomore Ellie Frisch was named first-team all-Big Eight and third-team all-state. Sophomore Milanne Dahmen was named first-team all-conference and honorable-mention all-state, while senior Makenzie Hodson was named second-team all-conference and honorable-mention all-state.

That quintet then came up big at state as the Cardinals wrote another thrilling chapter in the Halverson novel.

“We left here (in 2018) after finishing second saying, ‘we want first next year.’ And they were completely determined,” Halverson said. “All season long, they just worked harder and harder every day. I didn’t have to say anything and they wanted it just as much as I did.”

 

Performance of the Year: Lauren Pansegrau, cross country and Gabriela Pierobon Mays, swimming

Middleton senior swimmer Gabriela Pierobon Mays scored points in four events and helped the Cardinals finish sixth overall at the WIAA Division 1 state meet in November.

Pierobon Mays captured third place in the 100-yard backstroke in 54.74 seconds while swimming the second heat in the event.

“Our goal going into that is like, ‘Gabby, post a time that scares them,’ ” Middleton coach Lauren Cabalka said. “That’s your job, be in your lane, be in your zone, post a time that scares them and she sure did that.”

For Pierobon Mays it was another sign that she’s fully recovered from the shoulder surgery she had back in February of 2018 to repair a torn labrum.

“I was 10th coming into the race this weekend and my backstroke is something I’ve really been able to work on this year considering I’m just finally over that hump of just really trying to get back to where I was before my surgery,” Pierobon Mays said. “The fact that I was 5/100s off of my best time ever, I got out of that pool and I just kind of fell into Lauren’s arms and we both started crying.”

Pierobon Mays also competed for the first time in the 50-yard freestyle at state and had a fourth-place finish in 23.55 beating her seed time of 23.80. Pierobon Mays was also on Middleton’s 200-yard medley relay and 400-yard freestyle relay that both finished fifth.

“She’s the type of swimmer that’s like, ‘I’ll do whatever you want me to do,’” Cabalka said of Pierobon Mays. “Sometimes I have to talk to her and say, ‘No, what do you want to do, it’s your senior year.’ And she’s just like, ‘Honestly I’ll do whatever you need.’ She’s just that kind of swimmer. It was so fun to watch her today with that smile on her face.”

Pierobon Mays, who will be attending Vanderbilt next year, couldn’t have asked for a better way to go out.

“Throughout the season we have been tested more than we’ve ever been tested,” Pierobon Mays said. “Every year it seems like they just keep throwing things at us, but I never would have asked for a better group of girls to end this with. They are the classiest, most confident, most grounded, most humble, most amazing girls I’ve ever had the chance to be with.”

Middleton sophomore Lauren Pansegrau also had a memorable experience at state, finishing second individually at the WIAA Division 1 state cross country meet. Pansegrau’s magnificent showing helped the Cardinals place fourth overall, their best finish since 2013.

Pansegrau, who finished 31st at state as a freshman, continued her remarkable rise in the sport.

Onalaska junior Kora Malecek won the race in 17:44.6. Pansegrau was second in 18:14.2, more than six seconds ahead of Stevens Point’s Roisin Willis (18:20.9).

“I just wanted to start out fast and be near the front,” Pansegrau said. “I wanted to not fall too far back, but be running next to someone, too.”

Middleton coach Alexa Richardson said it helped Pansegrau immensely to have her entire team at state this season.

“She did well today because she had her team with her,” Richardson said. “She’s a very team-oriented person, and she was much more relaxed and confident going into this race knowing she had her girls by her side.

“She knew that she was going to be a contender and that she was going to be up there somewhere in the front — we just didn’t know where she’d be. She’s a very positive person, so she gets excited rather than anxious, so it’s fun to watch her race because I don’t have to deal with the nerves or anything beforehand.”

 

Senior Athlete of the Year: Sitori Tanin, basketball

Tanin, a University of Loyola recruit, was named first-team all-state by the Wisconsin Basketball Coaches Association and was also a first-team all-Big Eight Conference performer.

Tanin, a three-year starter, had her best season yet. Tanin led the Cardinals in scoring (14.6), rebounding (10.8) and assists (3.2). Tanin was also second in steals (1.7), shot 45.2% from the floor and 68.0% from the free throw line.

“She worked really hard at getting better offensively,” Middleton coach Jeff Kind said of Tanin. “There’s still things she can improve on, but she made huge strides. Then she was like a vacuum cleaner on the boards and averaged a double-double for the second straight year. She just had a great season.”

Tanin, a standout track and field athlete, as well, didn't get a chance to perform there as spring sports were wiped away due to COVID-19.

 

Newcomers of the Year: Zaira Malloy-Salgado and Kiara Malloy-Salgado, cross country

The Malloy-Salgado sisters moved to Middleton this year when their mother took a job with the microbiology department at the University of Wisconsin. The two proved to be huge additions to the Cardinals’ cross country program.

Zaira, a freshman, was 18th at the state meet in 19 minutes, 15.9 seconds. Kiara, a junior, was 27th (19:36.8).

The terrific twosome helped the Cardinals finish fourth, their best showing since 2013.

Zaira got acquainted with several teammates on summer runs. She could tell right away she liked the “chill” coaches and that she was alongside experienced runners.

At state, Zaira’s strategy was to run in a pack for the first mile, spread into a line for the second mile, and then break off in the third. She followed her coaches’ instructions to start passing people down the backstretch, then started gaining momentum and sprinted to the tape.

“I try to make sure I have a tiny bit left so I can give it my all,” Zaira Malloy-Salgado said. “We have all trained so much. It’s amazing to see how far everyone has come. To see it all pay off is awesome.”

Kiara Malloy-Salgado competed at the state meet in Iowa when she attended Iowa City West High School as a freshman and sophomore. She had virtually no knowledge or preconceived notions of the course in Wisconsin Rapids, but that was nothing new.

“Having no experience with any of the courses is something that definitely shook me a little bit at first,” Kiara said. “But then I got into the rhythm of, OK, new course — what do I need to know about? It made for a crazy experience.”

Kiara’s entire first year with the Cardinals wound up being crazy — crazy good, that is.

Kiara wasn’t thrilled about packing up and moving with only two years of high school left. But the Cardinals’ tight knit cross country team helped Kiara adjust quickly, while she helped Middleton reach impressive heights on the course.

“I definitely did not accept the change at first,” Kiara said. “I was very frustrated. I was upset with everyone around me, because I was like, ‘I don’t want to be here — I want to be with my team back home.’ At this point, (Middleton) is home. There’s no way to change that. If I were to go back home now, I’d miss them terribly.”

Kiara said her teammates helped her blossom as a runner this fall.

“They are amazing. They are so supportive,” she said. “They tell me about past courses, past races, teams I should keep an eye out for.

“Upperclassmen are typically expected to lead, so I came into a bit of an awkward situation, where I felt like I needed to help inspire the other girls and I didn’t know how. Honestly, they did the work — they helped me become the runner I am right now. From last year to this year, I feel very different. I feel like I’ve grown as a person because of the change.”

Richardson said she was thrilled to see the Cardinals embrace the Malloy-Salgado sisters from Day 1 — a relationship that clearly benefitted everyone involved.

“They’ve been so sweet,” Richardson said.” Right away when they came, they were like, ‘We miss home, we miss home.’ I think they’re coming to terms that this is their new family. We really accepted them in, and they’ve said that has helped them transition in a little easier.”

 

Game/event of the Year: Middleton 61, Madison Memorial 58 in a sectional final

Thirteen. Nine. Five. One.

As their deficit kept shrinking, their energy kept rising. The noise inside Monona Grove High School rivaled a Metallica concert.

And Middleton’s girls basketball team — which has been the hunted throughout this magical season — was thriving in its new role as the hunter.

“As soon as we started chipping away, you could feel everything changing,” Cardinals senior forward Karina Bursac. “We knew if we just kept playing like that, we had ‘em.”

They sure did.

Middleton, which trailed Madison Memorial, 37-24, at halftime of its WIAA Division 1 sectional final on March 7, opened the second half on a stunning 20-3 run. The Spartans battled back and forged ties at three different points, but the Cardinals used a late 6-0 run to post a thrilling 61-58 win.

Middleton won its 20th straight game, improved to 25-1, and advanced to the state tournament for the ninth time since 2008. Unfortunately for the Cardinals — and basketball fans everywhere — the state tournament was later canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

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

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

If there was a silver lining, it's that Middleton’s final game brought great joy to Cardinal Nation.

During Middleton’s win over Madison Memorial, Bursac was brilliant with 17 points and 13 rebounds. Senior forward Kendall Roquet had 12 of her 16 points in the second half and senior post Sitori Tanin added 10 points and 13 rebounds.

“We played a lot harder during that run and it just gave us the confidence to know that we can play with them,” Roquet said. “It just gave us confidence to know that we could win the game.”

The chances of a Middleton victory certainly appeared slim at halftime.

The Cardinals had 15 first half turnovers against Memorial’s relentless full-court pressure. Tanin, Middleton’s leading scorer and rebounder, sat the final 6:44 with three fouls. And the Cardinals took 10 fewer shots than the Spartans due to their inability to hold onto the ball.

The result was a 13-point deficit for a Middleton team not accustomed to playing from behind.

“We weren’t going to panic,” Middleton coach Jeff Kind said. “And you know, if I get all panicky, they’re going to get panicky. So the locker room at halftime was really calm. We said we have to do this, this and this better, and all of our timeouts, even at the end, it was try to keep all the emotions down and just go about business.”

They did exactly that.

First, Kind made an adjustment against Memorial press, having Roquet slash to the middle, then either beat the press with another pass or via the dribble. Middleton’s passes were crisper, girls came to the ball harder, and the Cardinals were able to turn it into a half-court game, which worked in their favor.

“We definitely practiced breaking their press a lot,” senior point guard Josie Lemirande said. “And we just kept our composure and played our game.”

Middleton opened the second half on an 8-0 run and pulled within 37-32 of the Spartans with 13:15 left. Bursac had four points during that stretch, Tanin and Lemirande both had baskets, and the Spartans went scoreless on their first eight possessions of the half.

Memorial briefly stopped the bleeding with a deep three-pointer from junior guard Maya White Eagle. But the Cardinals embarked on an electrifying 12-0 run over a 4 ½ minute stretch and took a 44-40 lead with 7:35 remaining.

Memorial fought back and tied the game, 53-53, with 1:37 remaining. Roquet, a 59.8% free throw shooter, was fouled on the Cardinals’ next possession and calmly drained both foul shots.

After Memorial standout Leilani Kapinus missed on the other end, Roquet made two more free throws to give Middleton a 57-53 advantage with 48.3 seconds left.

Senior guard Evie Coleman drilled two more free throws with 27.8 seconds left to give Middleton a 59-53 lead. And the closest the Spartans came from there was after Kapinus made a three-pointer at the buzzer.

“Wow. Holy smokes,” Kind said. “At halftime (we said), ‘Guys, we talked about this before the game. You can’t be fading away from the ball when they’re pressing. You’ve got to be coming to the ball and go meet the ball.’

“And we did a better job of it in the second half. I think we were just a little timid against their press and we threw some really weak passes. And a lot of their offense comes off of turnovers and pushing the ball. So, we did a much better job of keeping them out of there in the second half.”

Lemirande agreed.

“Coach said before the game that pressure is an illusion,” Lemirande said. “So, we just had to play through it. The gym was insanely loud. We just had to tone it all out and play our game.”

They did — and they produced one of the most memorable wins in the program’s illustrious history.

 

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