Middleton’s year in sports

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MTT News's picture
By: 
Rob Reischel
Former Middleton athletic director Bob Joers (far left) passed away on May 15./File photo

Thrilling victories. Magnificent individual performances. Memories to last a lifetime.

These are the norm inside the sports programs at Middleton High School.

But there was nothing normal about 2020.

The sports world came to a screeching halt on March 12 due to COVID-19. And amazingly, the Cardinals didn't have a single event the rest of the year.

Oh, there were a few memorable moments. There was also a lot of waiting, watching and wondering.

Times-Tribune Sports Editor Rob Reischel looks back at the top-10 stories of 2020.

 

1. Middleton A.D. Bob Joers dies

Bob Joers led Middleton’s athletic department into the 21st century.

Joers helped the Cardinals become arguably the top athletic program in the state.

And through it all, he remained one of the most flexible, accessible and personable people in his industry.

Joers, Middleton’s athletic director from 1995-2004 and again from 2011-2020, died May 15 after a battle with pancreatic cancer. He was 56.

“We are heartbroken,” Cindy Joers, Bob’s wife, wrote on his CaringBridge page. “But we are at peace because he is at peace.”

Joers was the face of Middleton athletics the majority of the past quarter century. Whether it was a Friday night football game or a Tuesday afternoon tennis match, Joers was typically running the event.

Joers oversaw the Cardinals’ transition from the Badger Conference to the Big Eight Conference in the mid-1990s. Joers then watched Middleton grow into the dominant program not only in the Big Eight, but also become a juggernaut across the state.

Since 1997, Middleton has won 18 WIAA Division 1 state titles and finished second at state more than 30 times.

In the 2019-’20 school year alone, Middleton won state titles in girls golf and boys cross country. Middleton’s girls co-op hockey team took second at state in March, while the girls basketball team was ranked No. 1 and seeded first in Division 1 before the WIAA canceled the state tournament.

“Heartbreaking. No words,” Middleton boys basketball coach Kevin Bavery said. “Just so sad. We all knew it was coming, but I thought maybe a few more weeks, holding out hope we might get one more chance to speak. The suddenness is crazy and the impact still hits hard.”

Brian Finnel, Middleton’s boys cross country coach, agreed with Bavery.

“Bob was a tremendous person and a great mentor for all of the coaches,” said Finnel, who has led the Cardinals to state championships in 2017 and 2019. “Losing Bob is devastating, a loss that will no doubt impact the whole community.

“I will really miss Bob’s humor, particularly in his stories. He always kept things light-hearted in the good times, but also in the challenging moments we coaches go through. I really appreciated all of his guidance. He will be so dearly missed.”

Among the other highlights during Joers’ tenure as athletic director:

• Middleton received the Award of Excellence from the WIAA twice over the past three years. Middleton was one of 15 schools to receive the inaugural award in 2016-17. MHS was also one of 27 schools to be recognized in 2018-19.

• Middleton won the prestigious WSN Cup for the first time in 2019. The Cup recognizes schools that achieve success in WIAA-sponsored sports. Hartland Arrowhead had won the Cup every prior year since it was first awarded in 2007-‘08.

• Joers was named the Big Eight Conference’s Athletic Director of the Year in 2019 along with the Wisconsin Athletic Directors District 5 Athletic Director of the Year.

“Bob has been a great leader of the athletic program here,” longtime girls basketball coach Jeff Kind said. “It’s a difficult and often thankless job. I think that Bob has always looked out for the overall good of the entire athletic and activities program, and he’s shown great loyalty and concern for each of us individually.”

Ben White, Middleton’s boys volleyball coach, was always impressed with the success the Cardinals attained under Joers. Even more importantly, though, White marveled at the positive relationships Joers had with almost everyone he crossed paths with.

“Bob wasn't just present at everything in Middleton, he was a presence,” White said. “He made everyone feel important and every person you talk with will tell you about how special their relationship was with Bob.

“Bob always told me that the most important thing about his job was not the wins and losses of the program, but building relationships with people. He tried every day to greet students as they walked in the building and I was always amazed at all the students he knew as they walked by.”

Joers graduated from Milwaukee Bradley Tech and attended the University of Wisconsin, where he was a standout swimmer.

Beginning in 1988, Joers took over as Middleton’s boys and girls swimming coaches and held each post for more than a decade.

Joers led Middleton to a runner-up finish at the WIAA Division 1 boys state swimming championship in 2000. The Cardinals also finished third at state for three consecutive years from 2002-‘04. Joers was honored as the Wisconsin Interscholastic Swim Coaches Association state boys coach of the year three times over a four-year period.

Joers also founded the Mad-Town Aquatic swim team in 1990 and served as a coach until 2005.

The Middleton-Cross Plains Area School District recently announced it would rename its indoor pool after Joers.

“It is only fitting that we name the indoor pool after Bob,” Superintendent Dana Monogue recently said. “Bob is an icon in the community. He has done so much for our students, coaches and families over the years. He has always put people first. He has also built one of the top athletic departments in the state. On top of all that, Bob is a great person.”

Joers was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in October, 2019. He began an aggressive form of chemotherapy on Nov. 20, 2019.

The goal was to shrink the tumor to the point where it was operable, but that never happened. Joers and his wife Cindy were married 31 years. They had three children — Alex, Brett and Mattie.

Due to Covid-19, funeral services won’t take place immediately.

“In a weird way, I am okay with this so we can think a little bit about how to proceed in a way to honor Bob and have everyone who wants to be a part of it, be a part of it,” Cindy Joers wrote. “Bob was very clear that he wanted a ‘party with drink cards instead of prayer cards’ for his memorial.”

 

2. Spring sports canceled

For more than a month, they held out hope.

They crossed their fingers and kept preparing for a season they knew might never arrive.

In late April, though, the end officially came for high school coaches and athletes across the state.

The WIAA’s Board of Control voted, 10-1, to cancel spring sports competitions and the spring sports tournament series. Spring sports coaches will still be allowed to coach virtually through the end of the state tournament for their specific sport.

Spring coaches were also given 30 out-of-season contact days — up from the typical five days — to work with athletes in July and August. Those days can’t begin, though, unless state and/or local guidelines allow. Coaches must also work with spring athletes currently in Grades 9-12.

The WIAA’s decision came after Wisconsin Democratic Gov. Tony Evers extended the coronavirus stay-at-home order through May 26. Evers’ mandate also closed schools and banned any extracurricular activities until at least June 30.

While many have been expecting such a decision, the finality of it all certainly stung.

“I understand the why, but I am still disappointed,” Middleton girls soccer coach Mary Duffy said. “I figured that it was doubtful for returning to school. I miss my classroom, my students, my team, my colleagues. I know that we are all feeling this way. 

“I know that the team is disappointed and wish for some type of season. I feel bad for this year’s seniors, missing lots of events that wrap up their career here at the high school, not just spring sports, but walking the halls of their elementary school in their cap and gown to inspire those students.”

Boys golf coach Tom Cabalka was set to field one of his best teams ever. Like Duffy and many others at MHS, Cabalka was disappointed the Cardinals’ year ended before it began.

‘The boys are extremely disappointed, along with our other 80-plus players that were excited for the season,” said Cabalka, whose team was rated No. 2 in the Golf Coaches Association of Wisconsin preseason poll. “It really did not surprise me that Gov. Evers extended the stay at home and canceled school for the remainder of the year. I just couldn't envision kids going back to school, sitting in class next to each other, passing in the halls, eating lunch together and on and on. 

“I was hoping for something different, but not expecting school to go back until maybe mid-May. I thought if that would happen we could still have a partial season, maybe an invitational or two, but at least regional, sectional and state.”

The WIAA initially postponed all athletic participation following an executive order issued by Evers on March 13 that closed all public and private schools on March 18. That order put a premature end to the basketball seasons, which were still in their tournament series.

Since then, spring sports teams have kept the faith they might be able to salvage some type of season.

While teams haven’t been able to hold organized practices, athletes continued doing individual workouts and held virtual meetings with coaches and teammates. When Evers extended his stay-at-home mandate, many took the news extremely hard — even if they fully understood the logic behind the decision.

“Our entire program — coaches, student-athletes, managers — are naturally disappointed,” MHS girls softball coach Brittany Carl said. “Just last Friday, the team came out to Firefighters Memorial Park to watch — from a safe distance — as we turned on all the lights for the “BeTheLight” campaign. I think that was the moment it really hit everyone, that we might not have the opportunity to defend our home field this season.

“Even now as disbelief starts to fade, and reality slowly sets in, speculation continues to run rampant. As a coach, it breaks your heart. These student-athletes dedicate so much of their time and energy to the program, to building it into something great.

“Now, without the chance to showcase their hard work and see its output, that vicious should have/could have/would have cycle has really become tangible. Uncertainty has no doubt been the hardest emotion to process.”

Duffy’s soccer team also went to Firefighters Park last Friday, and admitted it was a tough night.

“All the girls are sad, which is an understatement,” Duffy said. “We are trying to do lots of team bonding activities, trying to stay connected with the support aspect of our season.

“We turned the lights on at Firefighters Stadium for the national “BeTheLight” campaign to support spring athletes in particular. It was a somber, very sad situation to see our beautiful field empty. It still makes me tear up — no crowd, no teams, no tents.” 

The WIAA was holding out hope that it could provide some type of season for its spring sports teams. But several road blocks crept up in the past week.

First, the University of Wisconsin extended the cancellation of campus events through June 30. That meant state tournaments in boys golf, boys tennis and girls softball — which are all held on the UW campus — would need new venues.

Then Evers delivered the death knoll, leaving the WIAA without any viable options to have a season.

“I sort of expected it to happen,” Middleton baseball coach Brent Jorgensen said. “When you look at the various news outlets in the last few weeks, none of them seemed to give any indication that we would be back in May for any sports or activities.

“Of course, it still stings when you hear the order because you know the ramifications of it. But it wasn't a surprise and I completely understand and agree with the decision so we can try to limit the spread of this virus.”

While the loss of spring sports has been tough to digest, most MHS coaches said their teams are handling it as well as could be expected.

“Unfortunately, we are living through unprecedented times and we must continue to prioritize health and safety,” Middleton girls track and field coach Jay Schweitzer said. “In a sport like track, I was hoping we could be creative to distance ourselves allowing students to exercise and enjoy friendly competition — activities that are beneficial for both the body and the mind. I miss the team, the camaraderie, and my fellow coaches. The kids have been great and really positive throughout this process. They are always fun to interact with and this is no exception.”

 

3. Boys swimmers win state

On the cusp of a state title, Middleton coach Danny Lynam knew just what to do.

He leaned on his seniors to bring it home.

And did they ever.

The senior pair of Nathan Kim and Forrest Peterson helped Middleton capture its first-ever WIAA Division 1 state swimming and diving championship in dramatic fashion with a second-place finish in the meet’s final event — the 400-yard freestyle — at the University of Wisconsin Natatorium on Feb. 22.

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,” 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 with 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 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 Catholic Memorial.

“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.”

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 always give every race I have 100 percent,” Peterson said. “I just want to be able to be proud of myself and make our team proud.”

Lynam tweaked the 400 relay lineup to put Kim and Peterson at the end of the relay.

“We kind of went for an odd relay lineup,” Lynam said. “We didn’t go with the traditional lineup because we wanted the freshmen to kind of have someone to race right away, we weren’t in a big deficit or a big lead right out of the gate, and then we knew the seniors were going to want it.”

“We liked to anchor with the seniors,” added Kim, , a University of Minnesota recruit. “Me and Forrest wanted to be on the end of that relay. I just gave it everything I had, that was my last swim. It was a really emotional swim, but I just gave it my all and it paid off. It’s amazing.”

The quartet finished the race in 3:06.11, more than six seconds better than their seed time of 3:12.30.

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,” 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.”

“I’m honestly just blown away,” added Lamers. “I just know we have such amazing swimmers on the team that I definitely thought it was a possibility (to win) and to see that come to fruition, it was like dream come true. So I was like blown away, slightly surprised but not surprised at all too. Just the dedication our team has.”

The Cardinals had built a commanding 194-151 lead over Waukesha South/Catholic Memorial after nine events, but didn’t have any swimmers in the next two events – the 100-yard backstroke or 100-yard breaststroke. Waukesha South/Catholic Memorial piled up 31 points in those events, closed within 194-182, and set up the fantastic finish.

“Backstroke and breaststroke were honestly some of the serious times of my life just watching and not being able to do anything,” Lamers said. “Just watching those points get closer and closer, but I had faith in my guys on that last relay. I knew that they could punch it out at the end and they ended up doing it.”

Added Lynam: “It was like gaining a bunch of speed and jumping off a cliff, just hoping that you make it.”

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.”

“You know it’s more about the team,” added Lamers. “I’d rather win as a team than win individually and I could not be happier for how this went for these boys and how we’ve come together.”

Kim led the way individually with a third-place finish in the 200-yard individual medley relay in 1 minute, 52.52 seconds and a fourth-place finish in the 100-yard butterfly in 50.66.

“It wasn’t my best times, but I got the placement and I gave our team points and that’s all I wanted,” said Kim. “It wasn’t really about me, it was about the team. I wanted to finish as high as I could for the team.”

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.

“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.”

Other individual podium finished for the Cardinals came from Peterson, who was fifth in the 200-yard freestyle in 1:43.57 and Lamers, who took sixth in the 100-yard butterfly in 50.99.

Senior diver Isaac Roush got Middleton off to a solid start with a seventh-place finish in the diving completion with a finals score of 430.30 points.

Also for Middleton, Lamers took eighth in the 50-yard freestyle in 21.46; Peterson, eighth in the 100-yard freestyle in 46.92; junior Joe McNerney, 12th in the 200-yard freestyle in 1:45.96; senior Ben Collier, 13th in the 50-yard freestyle in 21.84; Madoch, 13th in the 100-yard freestyle in 47.46; and senior Calvin Roberts, 21st in the 50-yard freestyle in 22.09.

The Cardinals’ squad of Lamers, Collier, Madoch and Roberts took third in the 200-yard freestyle relay in 1:25.59, while the team of Lamers, Kim, Peterson and Roberts placed fourth in in the 200-yard medley relay in 1:33.96.

“We knew that we had a shot,” Lynam said. “There’s always that chance, but conference was okay and then we kind of stumbled at sectionals. We knew we were fully capable of it and we just had to be in the right mindset for it. The guys came in and they brought it and, you know, they got it.”

Chirafisi was especially happy for the group of seniors which included Lamers, Kim, Peterson, Roberts, Collier and Rousch.

“It’s just incredible,” Chirafisi said. “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.”

 

4. Girls state basketball tournament halted

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 they’ll always look back and ask, ‘What if?’

 

5. Fall sports postponed

Wait — and hope for the best.

That’s what Middleton High School decided to do when it came to fall sports.

The WIAA Board of Control voted 8-3 on July 23 to attempt to have a fall sports season, although the start dates were delayed due to circumstances surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic.

Three days earlier, the Middleton-Cross Plains Area School District voted to begin the school year with all-virtual learning. The district also determined that sports will not be permitted without in-person schooling.

So, there won’t be fall sports at Middleton High School in 2020. Instead, those teams will try playing a truncated season in March and April, 2021 — some time between the end of winter sports and the beginning of spring sports.

“There still has to be a lot of discussions about how to make this work,” Middleton athletic director Jamie Sims said. “There’s certainly not a perfect solution and I’m sure there will be hiccups along the way. But it’s our job to problem solve and try to come up with ideas to make this work.”

Sports played in the fall include football, boys soccer, girls golf, girls tennis, girls swimming, boys and girls cross country and boys and girls volleyball.

The Big Eight Conference announced on July 21 — two days before the WIAA’s Board of Control meeting — that it wouldn’t hold conference competitions or crown conference champions this fall. At that point, all four Madison schools, Sun Prairie and Middleton-Cross Plains had announced they would begin the academic school year with online teaching. Verona has since said it would do the same.

Those schools also said they would not hold athletic contests if students weren’t allowed in the building for academics.

The Board of Control considered a proposal that was derived by school district administrators from the southwest part of the state that would have sent fall sports to spring and spring to summer. But that proposal never garnered much support.

Instead, the overwhelming majority of the state held fall sports. Middleton — and most of the Big Eight — sat it out.

“After all the discussion, I think for now the WIAA found the best happy-medium by giving schools opportunities for the fall and spring,” Middleton boys cross country coach Brian Finnel said at the time. “I like that my kids still get a season this spring and I feel confident that more schools will join the ones from the Big Eight before the dust settles.

“We run outside when it’s 20 degrees in March for track, so it'll be quite similar just with a cross country squad. If the Big Eight didn't cancel, though, we definitely could have held a cross country season and got creative with practices and races.”

Middleton girls golf coach Becky Halverson agreed with much of what Finnel said.

“I'm just glad we are still being given an opportunity to have a season, even if we do have to wait until the spring,” she said. “With golf, it is quite a bit different from other sports in that you never have to go inside and you are always over six feet away from one another, so you don't get hit with a golf club. But I understand that they need to do what they feel is best for the district and everyone as a whole.

“The girls are definitely disappointed, but hopeful to be able to play in the spring. They are planning on continuing to golf in as many Wisconsin Junior PGA events as possible this fall.”

Sims said the goal is to keep the dates of winter and spring sports as close to normal as possible, so those sports wouldn’t affected by fall sports moving to spring. Just how that’s going to happen, though, remains unclear.

Boys basketball is the final winter sport with an end date of March 20. Spring sports such as track and field (March 8) and softball (March 15) begin before winter sports even end.

“If both fall and spring sports occur at the same time this spring, it will produce a lot of challenges and more than the southwest proposal, too,” Finnel said. “Many cross country boys do track, so I think it'll be easier for me to adjust our training.

“But if it's a different case from an athlete and administrative standpoint, this will be total chaos. Kids may have to choose between two sports and that'll hurt all the teams if it's a normal WIAA season in the spring. Of course, then there's lack of space and scheduling. In the end, this might be a nightmare for us.”

Middleton football coach Jason Pertzborn understands there might be immense challenges trying to have a season in the spring. But he was looking at the glass as half full.

“I’m just glad to have clarity,” Pertzborn said. “I hate that it took this long and I’ve been in full panic mode for two or three weeks now, but we finally have some answers.

“And now that we know we’re going to be playing in the spring, there’s a carrot out there for the kids. Put in the work, take care of your grades and we’ll hopefully have a season.

“I told the kids, ‘It’s a one-year deal, so let’s suck it up.’ I went from about 20% of me feeling good about the season to 80%. I think we can make the best of a bad situation.”

 

6. Sims named Middleton’s A.D.

Jamie Sims knows the job is daunting.

He understands that the demands, stresses and time-commitment can all be a bit overwhelming.

But Sims believes he’s ready for his next great challenge. And the powers-that-be at Middleton High School think he’s the man to lead their athletic department into the future.

Sims, formerly the principal at Black Hawk Middle School in Madison, was named Middleton’s new athletic director in mid-June. Sims replaced Bob Joers, who died of pancreatic cancer on May 15.

Ben White was named Middleton’s assistant athletic director and student activities coordinator. He’ll spend approximately 50% of his time in each role.

“I am really excited,” Sims said. “The program is in great shape thanks to all of the hard work laid by Bob. I’m just excited to build on that and amplify that. Athletics is really my true passion and I can’t wait to get started.”

Middleton principal Peg Shoemaker spearheaded the hiring process. There were 30 applicants for the job and six candidates interviewed earlier this week.

When that process ended, Shoemaker and the hiring committee liked what the duo of Sims and White offered.

“Jamie comes to us with a strong teaching background as well as proven leadership skills,’’ Shoemaker said. “He aligns with our vision to elevate the participation of our marginalized students.

“Ben has done an incredible job with our MHS clubs and activities and his long-standing success as a coach will make him an asset in a growing student body.  

“Both of these administrators together are perfectly positioned to lead our athletics program to new heights of involvement on and off the field of play. They have the drive, creativity, and perseverance to help elevate all of our student-athletes.’’

Sims, 39, graduated from Madison County High School in Georgia in 1999. There, he was a standout offensive and defensive lineman in football and also ran the 4x100 in track and field, a rarity for a football lineman.

Sims attended the University of West Georgia where he was also an offensive lineman on the football team. Sims then returned to Madison County High School and spent 12 years teaching and coaching.

Sims came to Black Hawk Middle School in Madison in the 2015-’16 school year, where he began working as dean of students. Kristina Sims — Jamie’s wife — is from Chetek, Wis., and the couple decided to move closer to her family.

Sims advanced to assistant principal, interim principal, then principal at Black Hawk, and earned his Masters in Educational Leadership from Edgewood College during that time.

While Sims enjoyed his time at Black Hawk, athletics has always been one of his great passions. So when the Middleton job opened, Sims couldn’t pass up the opportunity to pursue it.

“This was the first time where I felt my own school (Black Hawk) was in a great position if I left,” said Sims, who has two daughters — Lilyana and Maleah — in the Madison Metropolitan School District. “I’ve really wanted to get back to high school athletics if I could and Middleton is place I highly respected. It just seemed like a great fit.”

Sims often uses a saying that goes: “Kids don't always care how much you know until they first know how much you care.”

He plans to make that one of his mantras at MHS.

“I have great passion and people will see that,” Sims said. “And we will find ways to meet the needs of athletes and families and continue to make our kids successful.”

Sims is taking over arguably the top athletic department in the state.

Middleton has won the highly prestigious WSN Cup among large schools each of the last two years. In the COVID-shortened 2019-2020 school year, the Cardinals won state championships in girls golf, boys cross country and boys swimming and had several other high-level finishes at state.

Sims is hoping to put his own stamp on the department, though, and help the Cardinals achieve even greater success in the future.

“I know there’s pressure, but I’m excited about that,” Sims said. “That drives and motivates me. I want to amplify what’s already been done here and just add to it. I can’t wait to get started.”

 

7. Walby-era comes to an end

One of the ugliest chapters in the history of Middleton hockey came to an end on Feb. 28 when Cardinals coach Steffon Walby and MHS agreed to “part ways.”

The decision came after a week-long investigation in which district administrators and Walby determined it was best for the program to start fresh.

In Oct., 2019, Middleton asked the WIAA for an eligibility waiver for senior forward Joe O’Reilly, but that request was denied. But Walby played O’Reilly in 23 games, and he finished as the Cardinals’ third-leading scorer.

The WIAA received an anonymous tip about O'Reilly on Feb. 19, less than 24 hours after Middleton defeated Tomah/Sparta in its playoff opener. The Cardinals were then stripped of their playoff win, and Tomah/Sparta replaced Middleton in the regional final against Sun Prairie.

The Cardinals, who went 12-11 during the regular season, are also likely to be stripped of all their other wins.

“We are sorry for the pain this has caused our varsity boys hockey players,” Director of Communications Perry Hibner said. “No one wants or deserves to have their season end this way. The boys wanted to have a chance to play Sun Prairie and, hopefully, advance to sectionals and maybe beyond.”

Walby met with varsity players at the end of the school day on Feb. 28 to inform them he would no longer be coaching. Hibner said varsity boys hockey families were also notified.
“I want to thank Middleton High School for the opportunity to coach these past six-plus years,” Walby said in a statement. “It has been an honor and I am proud of what we have accomplished on and off the ice.

“I have had an incredible team of coaches who have been instrumental to our success. I am going to miss working with the players. They are the backbone of any program and I have nothing but positive memories from my experiences with them.”

O'Reilly competed for the Cardinals in past seasons, but moved out of the district in 2018-19. He moved back to the district in the 2019-20 school year, but his family remained out of state.

Under WIAA rules, this type of transfer calls for one year of non-varsity competition for the transferring student. Only through a successful appeal can an athlete participate.

WIAA deputy director Wade Labecki is responsible for eligibility issues. Labecki told the Times-Tribune that after Middleton inquired about O’Reilly’s eligibility, he ruled against it. Labecki then sent an email to Cardinals’ athletic director Bob Joers that included the phrase “no participation” for O’Reilly.

According to Labecki, Joers said he then forwarded that email to Walby.

Joers learned that he had pancreatic cancer at roughly the same time O'Reilly's waiver was being denied. Joers immediately reduced his workload to just a couple hours a day, which could have played a role in O'Reilly continuing to skate.

O'Reilly told the Times-Tribune that he was never informed that he was ineligible.

“I was not involved in the process of proving my eligibility and no one approached me with the fact that I wasn't,” O'Reilly said. 

Hibner said that MHS needs to improve processes and systems inside its athletic department. Hibner declined to elaborate what those might be.

Walby was named Middleton’s head coach in April, 2014, after the controversial dismissal of Steve and Tony Libert.

Walby, a Madison Edgewood graduate, had extensive coaching experience in professional minor leagues during and after his 11-year playing career. But Walby was fired just months after guiding the Mississippi Surge to the 2011 East Coast Hockey League championship, and moved back to the Madison area.

Walby went 53-16-2 in his first three seasons at MHS (.761) with many of the players the Liberts had groomed. In the last three years, though, Middleton went 37-31-3 (.542).

Walby inherited a program that reached the WIAA state tournament three times between 2003-’11 under the Liberts. Middleton’s 2011 team also reached the state championship game, the best finish in school history.

Walby guided Middleton to the sectional finals in both 2015 and 2016. In the four years since, though, the Cardinals haven’t advanced past a sectional semifinal and were ousted in regionals twice.

“We want to thank Steffon for his six years as the varsity boys hockey coach,” Hibner said. “He came in under not the easiest of circumstances, yet our program continued to have success in the Big Eight, arguably the best boys hockey conference in Wisconsin.”

Walby met with district administrators on the morning of Feb. 26. Joers had a separate meeting later that same morning.

Just 48 hours later, the Walby-era was over.

Now, Middleton will aim to learn from this ugly chapter and start anew.

 

8. Girls basketball wins memorable sectional

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. Bursac was brilliant for the Cardinals with 17 points and 13 rebounds, while 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.

Middleton, the No. 1 seed at state, was scheduled to face fourth-seeded Oconomowoc (22-4) in a state semifinal game. The winner of that game was slated to play either second-seeded Bay Port (24-2) or third-seeded DSHA (23-3) in the state championship game.

Unfortunately for all parties, the state tournament was cancelled as fears of the COVID-19 pandemic intensified.

Still, the Cardinals will never forget their final game of the 2019-20 season.

Madison Memorial, which has never been to state, used its relentless full-court pressure to build a 37-24 lead at the break.

The Cardinals had 15 first half turnovers, while. Tanin — Middleton’s leading scorer and rebounder — sat the final 6:44 with three fouls. The Cardinals took 10 fewer shots than the Spartans due to their inability to hold onto the ball, and 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.

Roquet, who averages 6.3 points per game and entered the day with just 11 three-pointers all season, was the impetus in this run.

First, Roquet buried a three-pointer from the top of the key to pull Middleton within 40-38 with 10:07 left. Roquet then drilled another three-pointer with 7:56 remaining that gave the Cardinals a 42-40 lead — their first since 8-6.

“Kendall, I love that girl,” Lemirande said of Roquet. “She was amazing when she hit that three. I told her, ‘you go on the top and you hit that three’ and she did. She did it. Oh my God. When that went in, I was just ecstatic. It was really a momentum changer.”

Roquet agreed.

“I was open a little bit throughout the game, and I don't usually take a lot of threes,” she said. “But then when I came off the bench, the coaches were like, ‘Shoot. You’re a good three-point shooter. Take it.’ And so when I got in the game I was open and I just had to have confidence in myself that I was going to knock them down, and I did.”

Bursac scored on a nifty, spin move just 20 seconds later and Middleton had its biggest lead of the game at 44-40 with 7:36 left. But the Spartans battled back and forged ties at 46 and 48 heading to the final minutes.

Lemirande answered with a three-pointer from the left corner to give the Cardinals a 53-50 edge with 1:53 left. Kapinus followed, though, with a rebound basket, was fouled and made the free throw to even things once again, 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 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.”

Middleton’s ability to protect the ball in the second half led to terrific results on both ends of the floor.

The Cardinals shot 12-of-23 from the field in the second half (52.2%). Middleton’s half-court defense was also sublime, as it held Memorial to just 5-of-27 shooting after intermission (18.5%).

In addition, the Cardinals outrebounded the Spartans, 29-11, in the decisive second half.

“We made a habit of doing stuff like this last year,” Kind said. “Get down by 13 and then work your way back. We did that a few times. And I think the kids realized that, too. We’re down 13, but we’re not out of it. We’ve just got to do things right.”

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 produced one of the most memorable wins in program history.

 

9. HTL season canceled

Brandon Hellenbrand, who manages Middleton’s Home Talent League team, had a hunch this was coming.

The same goes for Sauk Prairie skipper Lucas Koenig.

As cases from the COVID-19 pandemic rose, the challenges mounted for HTL teams to play their season. Finally on June 26, the league’s executive board voted to call off the season.

While teams across the league were disappointed, no one was arguing with the decision.

“I do agree with the Board's decision to cancel the 2020 season,” Hellenbrand said. “Over the last week or so, watching the number of cases grow and hearing from other teams that have played exhibition games and the difficulty they've had with following the guidelines, I don't think there was any way this season could have been played safely.”

Koenig, who sits on the HTL’s Board, felt the same way.

“In the past two weeks, three teams have acknowledged that players have either tested positive or been quarantined,” Koenig said. “With this in mind it is hard to envision teams completing a season schedule without significant disruptions.”

The league, which typically begins in early May, had pushed its start date back twice. As the season neared, though, a handful of obstacles made surging ahead virtually impossible.

Among them:

• The HTL Board instituted a “3 Strike” rule, meaning if there were three COVID cases throughout the league the season would be canceled. With the season set to start, a third case popped up, ending any hopes there would be a 2020 campaign.

“I think it was inevitable that there wouldn't be a 2020 season,” Hellenbrand said. “We had a good team discussion last week, and as much as guys wanted to play, including myself, when we started to look at the bigger picture on how this virus could spread so easily and affect family members and work and everything else, I think we all came the realization that this season just wasn't going to be possible and wasn't the best idea to try and push it.”

• The league features 41 teams from across Southern and Southwest Wisconsin. Before the league decided to cancel the season, six teams had already said they wouldn’t play in 2020.

• At the time the season was canceled, Dane County was in Phase 2 of the Badger Bounce Back plan instituted by Democratic Gov. Tony Evers. Until the county entered Phase 3, no baseball fields inside Dane County could be used.

Considering 20 of the league’s 41 teams are from Dane County — and couldn't play home games — scheduling became a nightmare. In addition, many high schools in and out of the county remain closed due to local COVID-19 guidelines.

• Several umpires were also hesitant to work games following the recent COVID-19 outbreak.

“With these infections, we also need to be concerned for our players’ families and our fans,” Koenig said. “I think the guidelines established by the league and our ballpark could have kept people safe, but there is always risk.”

Teams continued to practice and could hold exhibition games if they chose. But for the first time in the league’s 91-year history, it didn’t have an official season.

“We are going to continue to practice once a week so we can get our baseball fix in,” Hellenbrand said. “But taking a risk playing another team at this point just isn't worth it.”

Koenig agreed, and already had one eye on the future.

“We have been able to practice and we look forward to playing baseball together in this manner over the next month or so,” he said. “Although the 2020 season did not go as planned, there is no doubt the excitement for 2021 will be high.”  

 

10. New faces, new places

Middleton will have several new coaches once sports resume.

Dan Truehl was named Middleton’s new boys hockey coach on April 30. And for a moment, he might have been the happiest man in Dane County.

“I was doing so many fist pumps I’m sure I looked like a little kid,” Truehl said the day after he was named the Cardinals’ coach. “The reality is, I’m incredibly excited.

“I’m obviously humbled. I know how great this program can be. And I think I can relate to the kids and create an upbeat, fun culture.”

Truehl grew up in Stoughton where he was a three-sport athlete. Truehl played golf and soccer, but his first love was always hockey.

Truehl played three years with the Madison Capitols between Grades 6-8. He then was a four-year defenseman at Stoughton High School and helped the Vikings reach the state tournament in both 2009 and 2010.

Truehl graduated from UW-Madison with a degree in Biology in 2015 and wasn’t sure if hockey would be part of his future.

But Truehl hooked on with the Verona Youth Hockey program, where he coached for three years. Truehl then joined Middleton’s staff last season.

“I got to know all the kids and all the returners,” Truehl said. “I think I can bring youth and excitement to the program.”

Kevin Pauls was named Middleton’s new boys soccer coach.

Pauls is a lifelong soccer player who attended McFarland High School and began coaching with the Spartans in 1998. At McFarland, Pauls coached at all levels and was also a varsity assistant.

Pauls spent the 2006 season at Madison La Follette and served as the interim head coach the final few weeks of that year.

Pauls then joined Middleton’s staff in 2007 where he worked for head coaches Ken Burghy and Ben Kollasch. Pauls has coached all levels at MHS, and had a huge hand in starting the Cardinals’ varsity reserve program in 2012. Today, Middleton’s varsity reserve team plays about 70% of its schedule against varsity opponents.

“While I'm super excited, I'm also very honored and even a bit nervous,” Pauls said. “Within a couple hours … I heard from friends, family, current and past players, parents, and colleagues, literally around the world congratulating me, which made me feel great, but also shows the amount of pressure that comes with this program. This program has been at the top for a long time.”

Maddie Vogel was hired as Middleton’s girls volleyball coach. Vogel, who coached the Cardinals’ JV team in 2019, replaces Franco Marcos — who stepped down at the end of the 2019 season.

“I could not be more excited,” Vogel said. “As the JV coach last year I was able to get to know the team, and I feel so fortunate for the continued opportunity to work with them again. It’s a fantastic group of girls both on and off the court.”

Vogel played at Capital Volleyball Academy in both middle and high school. Vogel attended Verona High School, where she was a two-time all-Big Eight Conference performer and helped the Wildcats reach the WIAA Division 1 state tournament during her sophomore season in 2011.

Vogel coached the freshmen at Madison Edgewood High School in 2016 and spent three seasons in that role. She became Middleton’s JV coach in 2019 and will now be the face of the Cardinals’ program.

“As a coach, my two biggest priorities are to build mental resiliency and a strong work ethic,” said Vogel, who also coaches at Capital Volleyball Academy. “Fostering failure is crucial. It is important to me that my players are comfortable making mistakes and using those mistakes to grow rather than being scared to mess up.

“By building a strong mindset going into the season I hope to increase overall confidence and give my team the belief that we are on equal footing with any other team in the Big Eight. I also hope to construct a strong work ethic across the entire program.”

Matt Given was named Middleton’s new girls tennis coach. Given replaces Terry Geurkink, who lasted just one year.

Given, a Math teacher at Middleton High School, was born and raised in Mesa, Az. He attended Arizona State University and has coached the last 12 years.

Given takes over a program packed with potential, but also one that has lacked consistency at the top.

“The Middleton girls tennis program has so much history and success over the years,” Given said. “I know the potential that the girls program has and I am very excited to be a part of it. The tennis community here really supports the program and that is something that really drew me to this job.”

And Rob Kleinschmidt was tabbed to run the boys volleyball program.

Kleinschmidt was a girls volleyball assistant coach at Verona in the early 1990s while he finished school at the UW.

He then took a job teaching Math at Hartland Arrowhead, and also took over as the Warhawks’ boys volleyball coach. From 1995-2001, Kleinschmidt led Arrowhead to state five times, where the Warhawks were state runners-up in 2001 and reached the state semifinals three other years.

Kleinschmidt became the men’s coach at Milwaukee School of Engineering in 2003, and has been actively involved in the club and high school scene since. Among Kleinschmidt’s stops since leaving MSOE are assistant coaching jobs at River Valley and Beloit Memorial High School, and a handful of seasons coaching club teams in the state.

Kleinschmidt replaces longtime coach Ben White, who was named Middleton’s assistant athletic director in June, a position that precludes him from coaching.

“The first thing people will notice is I do this for a couple of reasons,” said Kleinschmidt, who lives in Beloit and runs a small business with his wife. “I love the sport, I still play, so I know how much fun it is.

“I choose to coach because I enjoy the sport and love coaching it. I also love having a chance to work with kids and see what they want … and help them understand how to do it.”

 

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