MHS swimmers gunning for state title

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MTT News's picture
Rob Reischel
Caroline Hippen and Middleton's girls swimming and diving team won their sectional./Times-Tribune photo by Mary Langenfeld

It was supposed to be the greatest day in the history of Middleton’s girls swimming and diving program.

The Cardinals were in the midst of winning the WIAA Division 1 state championship last November. Middleton’s dynamic group became the first in school history to leave the UW-Natatorium with a state title.

But as the state meet unfolded, Middleton coach Lauren Cabalka and the rest of the Cardinals didn’t feel like most teams that capture gold.

“Honestly, it felt kind of yucky,” Cabalka said.

Yucky? Really?

To hear Cabalka and her team tell it, the championship was remarkable. They’ll cherish it forever.

But the meet itself was anything but perfect.

There was squabbling. Girls were struggling with the pressure of the moment. And while the Cardinals left with a championship, the meet itself was far from enjoyable.

Compare that to 2015 when Middleton came out of nowhere, surprised the field and finished second at state.

When the state meet commences Saturday at 3 p.m., the Cardinals are hoping for the best of both worlds. Middleton, the favorite once again, would love to repeat as champions, but have the same enjoyable experience it had in 2015.

“There definitely were mixed emotions last year,” said Middleton senior standout Caroline Hippen, a University of Illinois recruit. “This year we’ve really come together as a team … and I really hope we carry that feeling to state this year so we don’t have that yucky feeling.

“We all want to end our high school season on the best possible note that we can. Winning is great, but we want to have fun, too.”

Senior Chiara Pierobon Mays agreed.

“I think we got so involved in taking first (in 2016), because when we got second (in 2015), we didn't know we could get second,” said Pierobon Mays, who recently committed to Queens (N.C.) University. “We weren’t even paying attention to the scores at one point. We were just so involved in everyone’s times and cheering each other on.

“After a year like (2015), you want to go higher, you want to get first and it felt like we were almost in there for ourselves more than our team. I think we really let that get the best of us and we were lucky to come out as well as we did with our attitudes.

“This year, we’ve done a lot of constructive stuff, we’ve sat down and talked about our attitudes because we don’t that stuff to happen again at state. A lot of girls have changed their attitudes and I think are having a lot more fun.”

To date, the 2017 season has been one of the more enjoyable ones in program history.

The Cardinals competed in four star-studded invitationals across the state and won them all.

Middleton went 9-0 in the Big Eight Conference, which is by far the state’s strongest and deepest league. That gave the Cardinals a remarkable eight straight league titles.

Middleton followed that up by winning the conference meet by nearly 300 points, a stunning gap against some of the best competition in the state.

“I don’t think there are many teams that could have done what we did at conference,” Hippen said.

Middleton then rolled to a sectional title last week, despite a scare when junior Hannah Aegerter left the meet with a medical emergency.

The Cardinals are a deep, gifted and veteran group that have seen about anything and everything possible. And they fully expect the experiences of past seasons to help them achieve all of their goals this weekend.

“Last year, there was so much pressure to win and to be No. 1 that we really let that get to us,” Cabalka said. “And it really affected us the whole meet. Everybody up in the stands, you can’t see what’s happening down below. But there was a lot of behind-the-wall stuff like, ‘Pull it together. What are we doing?’

“And just a couple weeks ago, I sat down with the girls and we talked about how amazing it felt (in 2015) when we got second. So I think that conversation combined with the experience from last year, I think that gives us a huge advantage this time in our maturity and our poise. There might always be hiccups, but I feel very good going into the meet.”

Cabalka certainly knows a thing or two about what it takes to achieve greatness. And the fact she’s doing it with her hometown Cardinals has made the experience even more fulfilling.

Cabalka was a standout swimmer, a captain and four-year letter-winner at Middleton High School nearly two decades ago. Cabalka swam in the Middleton Gators youth program and remains a coach there today, where she gets to know many of her future swimmers at young ages.

Cabalka took over what was already a strong program at MHS and has taken it up several notches. Today, the Cardinals dominate the Big Eight and have become the state’s top program in large part due to Cabalka.

“I’ve known Lauren since I was really little,” Hippen said. “She basically saw me take my first stroke and she’s going to see me take my last stroke with her, which is pretty remarkable.

“I’ve gotten to know her on a personal level and she has obviously made this a great program. She has a lot of talent to work with, but she knows exactly what to do with us. She personalizes our training, which is why I think we are so successful.”

Middleton’s talent also has a thing or two to do with its success.

Hippen and Chiara Pierobon Mays lead a gifted senior class.

Makenna Licking, Cora Mack and Aegerter power a dynamic group of juniors. Sophomores Gabriela Pierobon Mays, Berkley Smith and Alex Anagnostopoulos, along with freshmen Bella Chirafisi and Ally Silvestri headline a sensational group of underclassmen.

“It’s awesome how much depth we have and just how talented the whole team is,” Chiara Pierobon Mays said. “Hopefully we can go out with a bang.”

And have a little more fun in the process.

“That would be the perfect ending,” Hippen said. “To win state again and have as much fun as we did in 2015. Hopefully that’s what we can do.”

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