Boys spikers fall to CMH in thriller

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Rob Reischel
Ben Heise soars high for a kill during Middleton's loss to Catholic Memorial in the state semifinals./Photo courtesy of Brian Roebke

GREEN BAY — Their season had been over 15 minutes, or so.

Middleton’s boys volleyball team had given a valiant effort before Waukesha Catholic Memorial eventually toppled the Cardinals, 25-21, 25-21, 16-25, 25-22, in a WIAA state quarterfinal on Nov. 3 at the Resch Center.

And while Middleton was distraught that it wouldn't play another match in 2022, it was even more upset that things like practices and team dinners had come to an end.

Over the past 10 weeks, this group had grown remarkably close. And the fact the daily camaraderie was ending hurt even more than the loss to the mighty Crusaders.

“I’ll remember all the shenanigans we pulled, all the funny moments,” Middleton junior outside hitter Ambrose Engling said. “After we lost that game, I wasn’t thinking, ‘Oh shoot, I’m not going to be able to play another volleyball match tomorrow. I was thinking, ‘Oh shoot. I’m not going to be able to see these guys in practice every day.’ ”

Senior rightside hitter Ben Heise, the Player of the Year in the Big Eight Conference, agreed.

“It’s hard to find a group of guys that will spend 2 ½ hours, 3 hours together in a day and still want to spend more time together after,” Heise said. “So just the fun and just the team chemistry we had was amazing, and I’ve never felt it before.”

Unfortunately for the fifth-seeded Cardinals, their joyride ended against a terrific Catholic Memorial team that was seeded fourth, but shocked the field by winning the state championship. The Crusaders upset No. 1 Marquette in the semifinals and No. 2 Arrowhead in the finals after their hard-fought win over Middleton.

“Catholic Memorial’s probably the most talented No. 4 seed I’ve seen in this tournament in years,” Middleton coach Rob Kleinschmidt said after the Cardinals’ loss in the quarterfinals.

Turns out, Kleinschmidt was spot on.

But what had Middleton’s coach and his team quite happy is they matched the Crusaders swing for swing and block for block throughout a tense, remarkably even 96-minute match.

The Cardinals finished with a higher attack percentage (.259 vs. .210), more assists (45-43), digs (49-42) and blocks (9-5) than CMH. But the Crusaders came up big on critical points, which eventually swayed the match in their favor.

“A fantastic game played by Middleton,” CMH coach Danny Brozynski said. “They’re really tall, a really big team and they came out and were really fired up today. Really talented team and they really took it to us in that third set, but overall, we came together, played like a team and I’m really proud the way the boys came out.”

Kleinschmidt had similar feelings.

“They’re a highly talented team,” Kleinschmidt said of the Crusaders. “So, we knew we had to bring it and these guys brought it and they did a good job. We just didn’t quite get the score we wanted.”

Engling had an enormous match for the Cardinals, finishing with 21 kills, a .319 kill percentage, nine digs and two aces.

“(Engling) was an animal tonight,” Kleinschmidt said.

Heise had 12 kills, four digs and hit at a .250 clip, while Brody Stuttgen had 43 assists and 10 digs. Alexander Heuer had 15 digs and two assists, Kaden Fosdick had five kills and nine digs, and Joseph Ilk added four kills.

“That was a fun match,” Kleinschmidt said. “We’re here to win it, so obviously that part’s going to hurt and there’s nothing we can do about that. But these guys played great. You take a look at the way we were out there and the way we conducted ourselves and we came through in pressure situations and came back when we needed to. So, it was a good match.”

Good might not be a strong enough adjective.

This match had everything, and it would have been tough for fans from either side to get a better return on their entertainment dollar.

CMH jumped out to a 6-1 lead in the opening set. But the Cardinals answered with five straight points to tie the set, 6-6.

Stuttgen had four service points during that run, while Heise had a pair of kills and Engling added another kill.

There were nine ties and two lead changes in the middle of the set, with the final tie coming at 17-17. But the Crusaders finished the set on an 8-4 burst in which CMH standout junior Vinny Coello had three of his 17 kills.

“They’re going to find out he’s a fantastic player with a lot of heart,” Brozynski said when asked what the state would find out about Coello over the weekend. “He’s a great swinger, great passer, great server. He does it all for this team.”

The Crusaders jumped to leads of 4-1 and 10-5 in the second set and were in control throughout. Middleton crept within 22-20 after an impressive block kill from Heise and an ace from Engling.

But the Crusaders earned a sideout and notched three of the final four points to grab a 2-0 lead.

The Cardinals refused to go quietly, though.

Middleton flipped the script in set three, racing to leads of 8-3 and 13-7 and refusing to let the Crusaders make a move. Leading 18-13, the Cardinals closed on a 7-3 surge, captured the set, 25-16, and pulled within 2-1 in the match.

Engling was huge again with two kills down the stretch. And Middleton hit a blistering .333 in the set, while CMH was held to a .114 kill percentage.

“I think one of the main reasons we were able to pull together when a lot of other teams would just be caught in getting swept and not push back the way we did is something coach has talked a lot about, and that’s leading with positivity and just helping your teammates out and lifting others up helps lift yourself up,” Engling said. “Just having faith in our teammates.

“A lot of teams when they’re down, they’re going to start … doing weird stuff. We stayed consistent. We kept our big swings because we had faith in our teammates and we had faith that they’d cover us and get those balls up if we got blocked.”

The fourth and final set was one of the more intense — and thrilling sets — you’ll see.

There were a remarkable 14 ties from the time the set was knotted at 8-8 until it was deadlocked at 22-22. Just once in that stretch did either team record consecutive points.

With Middleton serving, CMH’s Roman Rothermel had a kill to give the Crusaders a 23-22 lead. The Cardinals then had a hitting error, and the dynamic Coello finished things off with a kill.

“I think that was the most competitive and most fun set I’ve played of volleyball in my four years of playing,” Heise said. “Although we didn’t come out with a win, just going back and forth, I don’t think there’s anything we could have done or they could have done to string along more rallies of more points in a row. Both teams just played so well and sided out so efficiently that it was just hard to get multiple points in a row.”

Kleinschmidt agreed.

“Those are great matches and that’s what you usually see at a collegiate level match more than a high school level match,” Kleinschmidt said. “That’s the level that these guys played at.”

Middleton’s kill percentage in the last two sets was .333 and .324 — numbers high enough to win almost any other match. Against the Crusaders, though, it wasn’t quite enough.

“As a team for hitting percentage like that, it’s amazing, especially in a match like this,” Kleinschmidt said. “It’s a high-level match and both teams have a lot of potential, and usually what happens in those matches is you can't hit at that kind of an offensive clip just because it’s not possible with that much talent on the floor. We did everything that we expected to in our gameplan. They probably did everything they expected in their game plan, too, and that’s exactly what it was.”

As the book closed on Middleton’s season, Kleinschmidt felt just like the rest of the Cardinals. Bummed out.

His group had done many great things in 2022, highlighted by another Big Eight Conference championship and the 13th trip to state in school history. But what Kleinschmidt was going to miss most was showing up after school and watching this special team get better and better each day in practice.

“For me, the thing that I’ll remember is the fun of practice,” Kleinschmidt said. “And I know this sounds kind of weird, but sometimes that’s hard. It’s hard to walk into practice and have a good time and challenge each other and still stay friends when you’re going after each other hard in practice.

“The way they handled themselves and took on challenges, whatever I put at them they decided that, ‘OK. We’re going to make this what we’re going to do. We’re going to get better at it,’ and they did. And they just kept getting better all the time. So, I will 100% remember what they did from start to finish.”

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