'Best of the best' for Middleton boys

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Rob Reischel
Middleton's boys swimming and diving team was all smiles after winning the first state title in school history./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. Last week, we honored the top girls teams and this week we’ll pay homage to the boys.

 

Teams of the Year: Cross country and swimming

In a matter of 3 ½ months, Middleton brought home a pair of state championships.

First, the cross country team won its second state title in three years, upsetting favored Stevens Point to bring home gold in early November. Then in late-February, Middleton’s swimmers surprised many and won the first state championship in school history.

At the state cross country meet, Middleton was without its No. 1 runner, senior Roman Ystenes, who suffered a knee injury late in the year and didn’t compete. Without Ystenes, Cardinals’ head coach Brian Finnel implored everyone on his team to act like they were No. 1.

The Cardinals listened.

Middleton placed five runners in the top-25 and finished with 104 points, while Stevens Point was second at 116. Hortonville (179), Madison West (182) and Oconomowoc (183) rounded out the top five at the 20-team race held at The Ridges Golf Course.

“I’m feeling really proud of the guys,” Finnel said. “What a resilient, tenacious group. In my eight years of coaching, this group was definitely the most resilient, that wanted it most. It speaks to the character of the guys.”

Sophomore Griffin Ward, the only non-senior in Middleton’s top-five, was thrilled how the Cardinals executed Finnel’s plan.

“We’ve got a bunch of guys who have all been No. 1,” Ward said. “We just had to go out there and run like No. 1s together.”

And that’s exactly what the Cardinals did.

Although Middleton was shorthanded due to late-season injuries, it still had a remarkable group of seniors to lean on.

Seniors Braedon Gilles, Egan Johnson and Zach Leffel all ran at state on the 2017 team that brought home a title. That trio, along with fellow senior Peter Hoferle, helped Middleton finish second at state in 2018 — a finish that left the group somewhat unfulfilled.

In 2019, the Cardinals made all their dreams come true.

Gilles finished the 5,000-meter course in 16 minutes, 19.1 seconds and set a personal-best time by nearly 24 seconds. Gilles also became the sixth Middleton runner to be the Cardinals’ top finisher this season.

“The best race I’ve had all season,” Gilles said of his performance. “We knew at conference we’d have to do it without (Ystenes) and we knew we could — it was just a matter of doing it.”

Johnson, a steady presence who was 21st at state in 2018, finished 21st again in 16:29.8.

“It feels good to come back after that narrow defeat last year and pull off a victory,” Johnson said. “We knew we could do better than that, and we did.”

Ward finished 22nd overall (16:33.6), while Hoferle was 23rd (16:34.5) and Leffel was 25th (16:38.7).

“Last year, we didn’t have a good ending,” Gilles said. “We wanted a good ending for our senior season. I knew we could do it. I knew I could do it.”

Middleton’s swimmers certainly did it, as well.

Middleton had finished second at state the last two years, but brought home gold this winter.

“I’m speechless, I really didn’t think this could ever happen,” senior Nathan Kim said. “Two second place finishes over the years and finally on top. There’s no better way. I can’t believe we did it.”

The Cardinals finished first 228 points to edge heavily favored Waukesha South/Catholic Memorial with 222 points. Sun Prairie was third with 197 points followed by Madison West (180) and Eau Claire Memorial/North (167).

“Second, second and then finally getting that first senior year … it’s a dream honestly,” senior Nate Lamers said. “I could not have imagined this going any better.”

“It’s honestly incredible,” added Forrest Peterson. “The last two years I thought that was incredible and I thought maybe that was it, but just getting all the way I couldn’t have asked for a better senior year.”

The Cardinals led by a mere 12 points entering the 400-yard freestyle relay and needed at least a fourth place finish to beat out Waukesha South/Catholic Memorial.

Freshman standouts Nick Chirifisi and Jack Madoch led off the race and put Kim and Peterson, swimming the third and fourth legs, respectively, in position. Kim surged from third to second and Peterson immediately challenged Caleb Blischke of Waukesha South/Catholic Memorial for first place before settling for second.

“I knew that it was really, really close and we had a certain spot that we had to get or else we wouldn’t have won,” Peterson said. “There was definitely a lot of pressure, but there was also a lot of hope and that really gave everyone on our team the ability to just fight for it and give it all we had.”

According to pre-race seedings, Waukesha South/Catholic Memorial was favored to win the meet by about 50 points.

“We scored out the meet before and honestly I knew that my guys could swim up,” Middleton coach Danny Lynam said. “I knew that we have a lot of room for improvement so I can’t say I’m surprised that we won, but it’s a crazy one nonetheless.”

The Cardinals’ depth showed up throughout the day as they totaled 12 top-eight finishes without a single first-place finish.

“We didn’t win a single event,” Lynam said. “All of our guys that were sitting around out of scoring or just at the bottom of the scoring moved up significantly. We were making those jumps where we needed to into the top eight and it just kind of kept accumulating and adding up for us. We had every single guy score here, which I’ve never had happen in the state meet before.”

Added Chirafisi: “It’s just incredible. These seniors, they just deserve nothing more than this and it’s just super nice to see that all the hard work paid off for them and how happy they are.”

 

Coach of the Year: Brian Finnel, cross country

Finnel has built one of the top programs in the state in just four seasons on the job.

Finnel led Middleton to a third place finish at state in 2016, a state title in 2017 and a second place showing in 2018. But the Cardinals’ state championship in 2019 might have been Finnel’s best coaching job yet.

Middleton’s season was at a crossroads after a disappointing performance at the Roy Griak Invite in late September. The Cardinals finished seventh that day at a star-studded event, and afterwards, Finnel and his team talked for 20 minutes about what they needed to do to get headed in the right direction.

“That was the turning point for us,” Finnel said. “From there on, it was, we just have to trust in what we’re doing and execute.”

Middleton did just that.

Despite injuries and uncertainty throughout the lineup, passed a bevy of tests over the final two weeks of the year.

The Cardinals won their third straight Big Eight Conference title, even though two of their top runners didn’t compete.

“It was quite a whirlwind and a very big challenge for the three-peat,” Finnel said. “It was a big team effort and I'm very proud of the boys for this win. They definitely rose to the occasion.”

Middleton then placed five runners in the top-10 and won the WIAA Division 1 Madison West Sectional at Lake Farm County Park.

“We knew we could do it coming into the season,” senior Zach Leffel said. “State’s our goal so we tailor everything to that. There were times in the season where we were feeling out of sorts. There were some tough races. We were trusting the process and knew we were going to peak at right around the time we needed to for conference, sectionals and state.”

Middleton then capped off its fantastic finish by winning the state title.

For the senior class, that meant two state titles and a runner-up finish in the last three years. And for Finnel, it meant another remarkable coaching job.

“I’m most proud of this (title), absolutely,” Finnel said. “They should be absolutely elated to win this, because on paper we weren’t supposed to win. These guys came in without a lot of pressure and just went out there. Of our three podium finishes, this is the one I’m most proud of, for sure.”

 

Performance of the Year: Boys volleyball at Whitefish Bay Invite

Scott Buros looked around at the sea of green that had enveloped Whitefish Bay High School last October.

Sixteen of the state’s top volleyball teams had gathered for one of the year’s best invitationals. But during a break from the digs, sets and spikes, Buros noticed something substantially different.

“People are just a lot more friendly today,” said Buros, a senior outside hitter at Middleton.

He was right.

Years from now, few will remember who won the 2019 Whitefish Bay Invitational. Instead, it will be remembered as the day the state’s volleyball community came together in support of Ben White.

White, Middleton’s popular, passionate and highly-involved head coach, learned he had lymphoma in Sept., 2019. Brad Kuehl, the head coach at Nicolet and a close friend of White’s, decided this was the perfect tournament to support his friend.

So, Kuehl had 500 lime green T-shirts printed up that were distributed to players, coaches and tournament workers throughout the day.

On the front of the shirt was an outline of the state of Wisconsin, and in the middle were the words “In This State No One Fights Alone.” The back of the shirt listed the 16 teams at the tournament.

There were times during the day when all of the players donned the shirts, which made it impossible to tell the difference between the teams. And really, that was the point.

On this day, everyone was on the same team.

Team White.

“When I saw the shirts, it was pretty awesome,” Middleton senior outside hitter Parker Van Buren said. “It’s a great thing they did for coach White. It meant a lot to all of us.”

Justin Haack, who’s serving as Middleton’s interim head coach, was also extremely moved by Kuehl’s gesture.

“The idea really took off and the support shown from all those involved was incredible,” Haack said. “The boys volleyball community in Wisconsin is a close group and coach White has played an important role in that community for over 20 years. I know he was very surprised and honored when he saw all the shirts and support.”

Actually, White first saw the shirts while eating a bowl of cereal in his own kitchen.

White’s plan was to arrive at Whitefish Bay midway through the tournament. So when White woke up, he flipped open his laptop to watch the Cardinals on a Facebook Live stream.

White quickly saw that the Cardinals were wearing lime green shirts. Then he began noticing that every team in the gym was wearing identical shirts.

“That’s when the emotion really hit me,” White said. “I sent Brad a text asking him what was going on and he sent me a photo back. I was just blown away. I was speechless. It was a humbling moment.

“I knew I had friends throughout the volleyball community. But the support has just been amazing.”

While the Cardinals continued to shine on the court, they all agreed things haven’t been the same without White.

“It’s definitely different and I do miss coach White,” Van Buren said. “Coach Haack’s a great coach and he’s doing a great job, but we all love coach White.”

Added Buros: “It’s weird not having him around. I miss him a lot. I miss not having him here. We know how much volleyball and this team means to him. And I know when we win, it keeps his spirits high. So that’s what we plan to keep doing.”

Middleton did a lot of that at Whitefish Bay, reaching the semifinals of the invite before falling to Germantown.

And while the Cardinals didn’t exit with a title, they knew everyone that helped make this magical day happen was a champion.

“We all want to beat each other in this simple game,” White said. “But truly, that’s what I’ve always loved about boys volleyball.

“We’re all in the same boat. We’re all trying to grow this game, and along the way, a lot of us have been able to make tremendous friendships. And I think people showed their true colors.”

That color was lime green.

And it meant the world to White.

 

Senior Athlete of the Year: Parker Van Buren, volleyball/basketball

Van Buren was a force on the volleyball — and basketball — courts during the 2019-20 school year.

During the volleyball season, Van Buren put together one of the finest years in school history and earned first-team all-state and honors along the way. He was also named the Player of the Year in the Big Eight Conference.

Van Buren, a Loyola (Ill.) recruit, broke the school single season kills record and led the state in kills with 503. He also finished second in school history in career kills (906).

Van Buren’s 52 aces this year were the second-most for a single season in Middleton history and his 78 career aces rank ninth all-time. Van Buren had a remarkable .467 kill percentage and he was also named Middleton’s MVP.

In simple terms, Parker was a dominant force all year and one of the top players in the state,” Middleton interim coach Justin Haack said. “He had his best matches against the top teams in the state.

“He's a rare talent and we know he still has his best volleyball ahead of him. We are all excited to see what he can do at the next level. Not only was Parker one of the best players in the state, he was an even better captain and teammate.”

Van Buren was also named second-team all-conference during the boys basketball season.

Van Buren was second on the team in scoring (11.9), first in rebounding (7.2) and first in blocked shots (0.8). Van Buren shot 55.7% from the field and averaged 1.0 steals per game.

“When you grow several inches during your high school years it doesn’t always come together for an athlete in any sport until they are a few years out of high school,” Bavery said of the 6-foot-9 Van Buren. “The jump that Parker made from his junior to senior year as both an all-around athlete and as a basketball player was impressive.

“We haven’t had a go-to player as a pure low post player for a while, but as we got better at getting the ball inside to him, especially in the second half of the season, he did a great job of finishing as well as finding open teammates.”

 

Newcomers of the Year: Nick Chirafisi, swimming/Griffin Ward, cross country

Chirafisi, a freshman, had a huge hand in helping the Cardinals win the first state championship in school history.

Chirafisi swam the second heat in both the 500- and 200-yard freestyle events and finished on the podium in both events, taking fifth in the 500 in 4:47.03 and sixth in the 200 in 1:44.78.

Chirifisi also teamed with Jack Madoch, Nathan Kim and Forrest Peterson to finish second in the 400-yard freestyle relay. And

“Nick had a great year,” Lynam said. “He’s been getting faster all year. We knew that he was going to do something great at state and he came through in a lot of ways.”

Ward, a sophomore, was the only non-senior on Middleton’s state championship boys cross country team.

Ward, who played soccer as a freshman, made the switch to cross country this fall and was a huge addition to the lineup. Ward finished 23rd overall at state in 16:33.6 and had Middleton’s third-best time.

“I’m glad I made the move from soccer to cross country,” Ward said. “They’re totally different. Cross country feels more like a team sport than soccer does.

“As a sophomore with seniors, it’s been great. You’re running alongside your teammates, and you’re pushing and pulling each other. You’re all in it together. You’re all suffering together. You’re all finishing together.”

 

Game/event of the Year: Middleton 21, Madison La Follette 20, Round 1 of WIAA football playoffs

Brad Rogeberg has watched Josh Stormer excel for nearly a decade now.

Rogeberg, Middleton’s defensive coordinator, began coaching Stormer when he was a fourth grader in the Cardinals’ youth program. And game after game, week after week, Stormer always shined.

“The kid has always been a playmaker,” Rogeberg said.

Never has Stormer made a bigger play, though, than last Friday during the Cardinals’ WIAA Division 1 playoff opener.

Visiting Madison La Follette had just driven 95 yards and pulled within 21-20 of the Cardinals after a 4-yard touchdown pass from quarterback Ben Probst to tight end Andrew Rajkovich with only one second remaining. The Lancers eschewed the extra point and lined up for two.

For a moment, wideout David Gray came free and Probst threw his way. But Stormer — a junior cornerback — made a sensational break on the ball, knocked the pass away and helped the Cardinals escape with a thrilling win.

“Unbelievable play,” Middleton coach Jason Pertzborn said. “He made just a great, great play.”

Senior running back Kallion Buckner led Middleton with 276 yards on 28 carries (9.9) and scored two touchdowns. Senior quarterback Drew Teff threw a touchdown pass to senior tight end Sam Engler, and Strormer made a finishing play that will be talked about for years to come.

“I knew this game was going to be a dogfight,” said Stormer, who also had an interception and a fumble recovery. “And it was really, really tough.”

It sure was.

With only five ticks left and La Follette at Middleton’s 4, Rajkovich leaked out of the backfield. The Lancers’ tight end got behind a linebacker and caught a pop pass from Probst to pull La Follette within 21-20.

After a pair of timeouts, the Lancers lined three receivers up on the left, Rajkovich on the right and Brown in the backfield with Probst. Gray, who was stationed farthest left, made a move to the middle and found a soft spot in Middleton’s defense.

As Probst released the ball, Gray had at least three yards of separation from any of the Cardinals’ defenders. But Stormer read the play perfectly, closed with ferocity, and knocked the ball away at the last possible moment.

“Honestly, they lined up in a different formation than we were expecting,” Stormer said. “I just saw an open guy and ran to him. They threw the ball and I ended up breaking it up.”

Added Rogeberg: “Josh has been doing this since the fourth grade. What he did was no surprise at all. Now, he did it on a bigger stage with a lot more at stake. But in big moments, he really shows up.”

 

Milestone of the Year: Kevin Bavey wins 400th game

Kevin Bavery isn't big on drama. But Bavery — Middleton’s boys basketball coach — certainly picked a dramatic way to notch his historic 400th win.

On Feb. 19, Middleton finished its game against visiting Janesville Craig on a 17-0 run and rallied for an improbable 71-68 win. That was the 400th victory of Bavery’s career, with 196 of those wins coming at Middleton.

“It’s a sign of longevity and having a great staff,” Bavery said of winning his 400th game. “If you’re going to (coach) this long, you’ve got to love the game, which I obviously do.

“What stands out more than anything, though, are the relationships. You don't forget those.”

It’s a good bet that Bavery and his team won't forget win No. 400 either.

Middleton, which entered the night 7-11 overall, found itself in a 68-54 hole with just 7 minutes remaining. Amazingly, though, the Cardinals put together their best stretch of basketball this season to give Bavery his memorable win.

Senior center Parker Van Buren finished the night with 23 points, while senior guard Cole Deptula added 20.

“It was awesome,” Van Buren said. “He’s been a great coach to play for. He’s got 40 years of experience and there isn't anything he hasn’t seen.”

Bavery got his start as the sophomore coach at Watertown High School in 1982-’83 under Wisconsin Basketball Coaches Association Hall of Famer Eli Crogan.

Bavery went to Oregon in 1985 and spent five years coaching the lower levels there, then was named the Panthers’ head coach in 1991-‘92. Bavery went 184-107 with Oregon over the next 13 seasons, and led the Panthers to the WIAA Division 2 state tournament in 2000.

Bavery spent two seasons at Cedarburg where he went 20-24, then he replaced the legendary John Boyle at Middleton in 2006.

Bavery led Middleton to the sectional finals in both 2006 and 2009, and guided the Cardinals to a Big Eight Conference title in 2015-’16. Bavery initially tried downplaying his 400th win, but after greater reflection, wanted to talk about someone who was integral in getting him to this point.

“Like many people, my Dad was my biggest fan,” Bavery said. “I wish he was still with us to have been there to share in the moment.”

Bavery also said that former Janesville Craig coach Bob Suter was a “mentor and friend” who helped him several times during his career.

“He was someone that would pick up the phone any time I called and always have great insights and advice,” Bavery said of Suter.

But Bavery is a gym rat, too, and his passion for the sport hasn’t wavered — even after nearly four decades on the bench.

“It’s a grind and there are ups and downs,” Bavery said. “I don’t know how many people coming along right now will do ever do this for 40 years because so much has changed since I started out.

“But it’s been a great run. And really, there aren’t many better places to be than the gym.”

Especially on the night Bavery became Mr. 400.

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