Volleyball community rallies around Middleton's Ben White

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By: 
Rob Reischel
Boys volleyball players from across the state all wore lime green T-shirts at last Saturday's Whitefish Bay Invite in support of Middleton head coach Ben White./Photo submitted

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

Sixteen of the state’s top volleyball teams had gathered for one of the year’s best invitationals last Saturday. 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, recently learned he has lymphoma. 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.”

Since being diagnosed last month, White has taken a step back from his coaching duties. He’s been at practices and games when possible, but job one is getting better.

Haack now runs the team. And when White is at games, he’ll give specific individuals pointers instead of addressing the whole team.

“It’s been hard,” White said of having a reduced role. “But it’s definitely the right thing to do.”

Middleton, the No. 5 ranked team in the state, continues to hum along.

The Cardinals won their 13th Big Eight Conference title in 14 years on Monday. With Van Buren — a strong candidate for state Player of the Year honors — leading the way, Middleton has a terrific chance to win a match at state for the first time since 2008.

But the Cardinals all agree things haven’t been the same minus 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.”

That won’t change in the near future, though. So Buros and the Cardinals figure the best thing they can do for their coach is to win.

“We know how much volleyball and this team means to him,” Buros said. “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 Saturday, reaching the semifinals at Whitefish Bay, 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 on Saturday, people showed their true colors.”

That color was lime green.

And it meant the world to White.

 

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