MHS swimmers capture gold

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By: 
Rob Reischel
Middleton’s girls swimming and diving team celebrated after winning the WIAA Division 1 state championship last Saturday./Photo submitted

Tait Haag resisted the temptation to become a scoreboard watcher.

But Middleton’s standout senior had a hunch the WIAA Division 1 state swimming and diving meet was playing out just like the Cardinals hoped.

“I saw the team was swimming well,” Haag said. “We had so many girls move up from where they were seeded and that's crucial for us to win.”

It sure was.

It’s also exactly what happened as the Cardinals bucked the odds and captured the fourth state title in school history, all since 2016.

Verona entered the state meet seeded 21 points ahead of the Cardinals and the frontrunner to claim gold. But Middleton exceeded expectations at several spots and finished with 212.5 points to edge the runner-up Wildcats (202). Arrowhead (198), Brookfield East (196) and the Badger co-op (163) rounded out the top five at a meet held at Waukesha South High School.

“Winning a state title is the reward for all of the hard work that our girls have put in this year,” said senior Piper Garcia Hall, who anchored two of Middleton’s relays. “We as a team have grown tremendously, as swimmers and as high school students. I personally have seen many of our girls grow into fine young women, and I couldn’t be prouder.”

Haag, who will swim collegiately at Kansas, agreed with Garcia Hall.

“To win a state title my senior year is a dream come true,” Haag said. “I have wanted to be a state champion ever since I watched the girls do it in 2018. I have never been a part of a team quite like the one we had this year.

“I’ve never had coaches that believe in their team like ours do. And every single one of the girls wanted to swim well for the team. To be able to win the state title, especially with this group of coaches and swimmers, really is everything I could have dreamed of for this season.”

Middleton became the first-ever team champion that didn't have an individual winner during the meet. Instead, the Cardinals accomplished this with teamwork and a number of swims that exceeded expectations.

Despite the Cardinals excelling throughout, they had to rally in the final race of the night.

Verona held a 7.5-point lead over Middleton heading to the 400-yard freestyle relay. That meant the Cardinals had to finish four spots higher than the Wildcats to move into first.

Middleton did even better than that.

First, the quartet of sophomore Sulia Miller, junior Audrey Alexander, freshman Brynn Sundell and Haag finished third overall. And when Verona settled for 10th place, the Cardinals passed the Wildcats for first place, then jumped into the pool to celebrate.

“Our 400 free relay all had girls swim lifetime bests to pull it off,” Middleton coach R.J. Leiferman said. “Our girls are super happy with how it went, and we are super proud of them.”

With good reason.

Junior Olivia Davis got the Cardinals off to a flying start with an eighth-place finish in the one-meter diving event.

“We are super proud of Olivia Davis for getting into the top eight for the first time ever at the state meet in diving,” Leiferman said.

Middleton’s foursome of senior Lily Mair, freshman Rian Jost, Sundell and Garcia Hall then swam to a fifth place finish in the 400-yard freestyle relay.

“Our relays did exactly what we were hoping they would,” said Leiferman, whose team defeated Verona in all three relays. “While we didn't have any relay win an event, we were consistent with all three relays, and we scored more relay points than any other team, which shows how great our depth is, and also how consistent our girls are.”

Haag then finished third in the 200-yard freestyle in 1:50.85, more than two seconds faster than her seed time (1:52.87). Sundell added a sixth place finish (1:52.35), while Alexander placed ninth (1:53.23) and junior Isabell Frommelt was 24th (1:57.83).

But it was Haag — who was seeded sixth — that gave the Cardinals an enormous lift with her third place showing.

“I was thrilled with my time,” Haag said. “To (swim) a 1:50.8 was such a shock. I thought if I had a great swim I could go 1:51, so to be able to go a 1:50, and get third in an event that has so many fast swimmers was amazing for me. I really wanted to place top-three in both of my individual events, and to be able to do that was a fantastic feeling.”

Miller placed eighth in the 50-yard freestyle and Garcia Hall was 11th. Frommelt was 20th in the 100-yard butterfly and Mair was 23rd. Then Miller was ninth in the 100-yard freestyle, while Garcia Hall was 11th and Alexander was 13th.

“The two biggest events where we picked up points were the 50 and 100 freestyles, with Sulia and Piper picking up points,” Leiferman said. “After the 100 free we were feeling really good about having a chance to win the meet.”

Middleton continued to shine as Haag finished second in the 500-yard freestyle — the Cardinals’ top individual finish of the meet. Sundell added a fifth place finish, while junior Hannah Machleidt was 24th.

“My 500 was extra special for me,” Haag said. “It’s my favorite event and before this year, I had never had a 500 at high school state that I've been happy with. To be able to go a best time ever, and around seven seconds faster than I went at state last year, along with getting second in that event was a picture perfect way for me to end.”

The Cardinals kept their collective foot on the gas as the quartet of Miller, Alexander, sophomore Clara Kiehl and Garcia Hall finished second in the 200-yard freestyle relay. Middleton’s time of 1:34.69 was just 0.47 seconds behind the winning relay team from Waukesha West/Catholic Memorial.

“Anchoring relays, especially at a meet like state is a feeling you don’t get very often,” Garcia Hall said. “The pressure that’s on you to finish the race well is something that I’m very familiar with at this point in my swimming career. Knowing that we had a chance to win the meet really kept me going. I knew what I needed to do and my teammates knew they could count on me.”

Two events later, Verona surged to the lead when it had four of the top nine finishers in the 100-yard breaststroke. Middleton got a 14th place finish from Jost, but the Wildcats’ prowess in that event made for a dramatic finish.

“Verona had an incredible 100 breaststroke event and scored 11 points more than they were seeded to,” Leiferman said. “So they had a bigger lead on us (7.5) than we had hoped going into the final relay. We knew we needed to beat them, and be at least four places ahead of them in the last relay.”

Middleton’s Fab Four of Miller, Alexander, Sundell and Haag made sure that happened.

The Cardinals were seeded fifth coming into the meet, but finished third. Meanwhile, the Wildcats were seeded eighth, but slipped to 10th.

“To be able to anchor the 400 free relay at state was such an honor,” Haag said. “We have a lot of really good 100 freestylers and I’m sure any one of us on that relay could have anchored it. But to know that my coaches trusted me to go there makes me really grateful.

“All of our girls stepped up and had great splits on that relay, and I’m really proud of each of them. We knew that we had to place four places above Verona in that relay to win the meet.

“I didn’t really know what place we were in, or Verona was in when I dove in so all I really thought about was getting to the wall as fast as I could for my team. To finish that race and realize we won was one of the best moments of my life. I’m just so proud of this team.”

Seven days earlier, Middleton’s boys soccer and boys volleyball teams won state titles within 21 minutes of each other. When the girls swimmers captured their title, it gave MHS a remarkable three state championships in a one-week window.

“That’s the feeling that was overpowering on Saturday — pride,” Garcia Hall said. “I was so incredibly proud of what we had accomplished. 

“Being able to join our school in bringing home another state title was amazing. The school came together in the past couple of weeks, more than I’ve ever seen before. Having that support and camaraderie is a whole new feeling.

“Keeping our energy up and being positive really helped us to earn the state title. We put our all into everything we did on Saturday.”

Which led to a state championship no one will ever forget.

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