MHS swimmers make it a three-peat

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Gregg Hammill/For the Times-Tribune
Middleton's girls swimming team won its third straight state championship on Nov. 10./Times-Tribune photo by Mary Langenfeld

Failing to qualify a relay team for the state meet would have been a devastating blow to most programs.

But Middleton girls’ swimming team isn't like most others.

Instead, the Cardinals used it as motivation and put on a dominating display en-route to their third consecutive WIAA Division 1 state swimming and diving championship at the UW Natatorium last Saturday.

Middleton finished with 249.50 points – 61.5 points ahead of second-place Cedarburg with 188. Sun Prairie finished third with 170 points and Verona /Mount Horeb took fourth with 169 points.

“Certainly you never want those things to happen and it stinks, but it was almost a blessing in disguise,” said Middleton coach Lauren Cabalka. “I think we’re a really solid, deep team with a lot of talent and sometimes you can ride on that. And when that gets taken from you, then you have to really show what you’re made of.”

Middleton, the top-ranked team in the state, saw its hopes for another state title put in peril when its 400-yard freestyle relay was disqualified at sectionals due to a false start — meaning the Cardinals would be without a relay in that race at state. That left Cedarburg as a 2.5-point favorite according to the Wisconsin Interscholastic Swim Coaches Association (WISCA), which scored the meet based on sectional times and seedings.

The news only served as more fuel for the Cardinals.

“The disqualification was kind of hard, but I think our team really thrives off of stuff like that,” said senior Makenna Licking. “We have been through so much as a team and it has only made our team closer, so I think that really helps us work together and pump each other up. Going in as the underdog is really motivating for our team.”

Junior Gabriela Pierobon Mays agreed.

“This team just worked their butts off for so long, so hard for this,” Pierobon Mays said. “It almost ended at sectionals. We almost let ourselves be defeated, but we came back Monday afternoon and then we’re like, ‘That’s not something we can control any more, but we still have a week left. We’re not going to be defeated, we’re not going in like we lost.’

“Every single girl on this team embodied that and it’s amazing to see all of the girls that stepped up and moved up, not just the two points that we were asked by our coach, but 10 points, 15 points, 20 points. It was really interesting to see what our team can do when no one believes that we can.”

Junior Berkley Smith said she was proud of how the Cardinals responded.

“It happened, it happened and we moved on from there,” Smith said. “We couldn’t do anything about it. We moved up in all of our other events and we knew that if we just got points in our individuals and everyone moved up two points then we would make up those points and we did and I’m so proud of our team for it.”

The Cardinals’ goal was to be leading by at least 40.5 points entering the 12th and final event – the 400-freestyle relay, which would award 40 points to the winner. Victories in the 500 freestyle and the 200 relay down the stretch clinched it as the Cardinals built an insurmountable 95.5 point cushion entering the final event.

Senior Hannah Aegerter won the 500 freestyle in 4 minutes, 55.48 seconds. Aegerter trailed Abby Carlson of Waukesha South/Mukwonago throughout the race, but passed her over the final 50 yards and cruised to victory. Aegerter wasn’t able to compete in the 500 last year after withdrawing from the sectional meet to receive medical attention.

“It’s amazing, it’s so surreal,” Aegerter said. “I’ve never won an individual at this meet. Just to do that on my last individual I was really motivated to get through that swim. During it and before it I was like I want to go out on the best note that I can for my team and for myself. That’s what really kept me going and chugging along.”

Licking added a third-place finish in the 500 in 5:03.09.

“Having all of the really fast swimmers next to you just feels so good because they’re all so good and you can really build off of them,” Licking said.

The team of Pierobon Mays, Smith, Aegerter and Licking then captured the 200 freestyle relay in 1:34.

“The 500, me and Makenna going 1, 3 that helped us a lot and then leading into the win in the (200 freestyle) relay,” Aegerter said. “I think that’s where we took off and we knew we just had to finish out the backstroke and the breaststroke and we were going to be good.”

Cabalka agreed with Aegerter.

“There was some calmness after the 200 free (relay) for sure,” Cabalka said. “And the girls just kept like one after the other after the other just doing what we set out to do. I’d say by the 500 we felt good.

“They came in here determined and we’ve had this before where you might get doubted by the numbers or seedings in the polls or the articles that are written or whatever and they just fight for it and that was kind of our motto this week. We said we’re going to fight with everything that we have, they said they we’re going to do it for each other and, man, they were on a mission. Mission accomplished.”

Smith was thrilled how the Cardinals all rallied around each other.

“The team connection and everyone swims for each other, not just for themselves,” Smith said. “That’s how all of our points add up because we just want each other to do good.”

Aegerter was also second in the 200 freestyle in 1:52.36 and was also part of the 200 medley relay team with Pierobon Mays, sophomore Ally Silvestri and Smith in 1:44.08.

Cabalka said Aegerter, who has verbally committed to swim at the University of Illinois, stepped things up at sectionals.

“I’m so happy for her,” Cabalka said of Aegerter. “She overcame a lot to be on this stage again after what happened last year and not knowing. That’s a huge emotional battle that you have to fight. She really battled it all year and then last week at sectionals all the sudden she came out guns a blazing like, ‘I’m going to do this, I can do it.’ That confidence was back, she got over that hump and then watching her swim today that was special. It was really fun.”

Silvestri earned a runner-up finish in the 100 breaststroke in 1:02.41 behind only Verona/Mount Horeb’s Grace Bennin, who set a new state record in the event in 1:00.65. Teammate junior Alex Anagnostopoulos added a fourth-place finish in the 100 breaststroke in 1:04.35.

Silvestri was also fourth in the 200 individual medley in 2:05.29, followed by Anagnostopoulos (14th in 2:08.34) and sophomore Madelyn Lawn (19th in 2:10.17).

Pierobon Mays, Smith, Emily Keebler and Licking all earned individual podium finishes while swimming in the second heats of their events. Pierobon Mays did it twice earning fourth-place finishes in the 100 butterfly in 55.28 and 100 backstroke in 55.78. She had won the 100 butterfly state title the past two seasons and was happy to contribute while still recovering from shoulder surgery in late February to repair a torn labrum.

“I won state last year in the 100 fly and I was seeded 10th (this year) and that really got to me mentally,” Pierobon Mays said. “So I was like, ‘what’s the plan going in to state? But then we came in on Monday afternoon and no one was defeated, no one felt like they had already lost, so I was like, ‘I’ve got to do this for my team.’ I’ve got to get some points for my team so I realized that, even if I don’t achieve my ultimate goal of winning again, but I still move up and I still get points for my team, that’s all that I care about.”

Licking finished fifth in the 200 freestyle in 1:53.22, Keebler placed sixth in the 200 individual medley in 2:05.67 and Smith took sixth in the 50 freestyle in 24.10.

Also for Middleton, senior Cora Mack placed 13th in the 100 freestyle in 52.93 and freshman Amanda George was 19th in the 500 freestyle in 5:10.86.

Without a 400 freestyle relay, Cabalka put together new 200 medley and 200 freestyle relays and asked some swimmers to make sacrifices.

“It allowed us to move our relays around a little bit which was a big risk,” Cabalka said. “I mean we swam two relays that we’ve never swam before. We had Hannah Aegerter swim on the medley and she was going right into the 200 free and then we had Gabby who stepped up on the 200 free going right into the backstroke. They sacrificed those individual swims essentially to be on those relays and see what we needed for the team and that’s I mean, that’s a team right there.”

Of the three state titles, Cabalka said this one may have been the most challenging.

“Every year is different, every year feels different,” Cabalka said. “This one I think was certainly the biggest challenge. There was a lot of newness this year. This team really didn’t look that much different than our team last year, but all of the things we went through at the end of the season and the lineup that we put forward here, it was different.”

Aegerter said this title was the most rewarding.

“This one is the most memorable and the most rewarding for us,” Aegerter said. “The first one was awesome, the first one we’ve ever won. The second one we were seeded not to win so that was like a step up from the year before. Then, this year again, we weren’t seeded to win, but I feel like it was so much closer and we all performed so much better and we were there for everyone a lot more than we were in the past.”

Cabalka couldn’t have been more proud.

“They’re such a good group of girls and watching them come together and the atmosphere back here,” Cabalka said. “The swimming was great, but the atmosphere that they created, that’s what won the meet for us and I couldn’t be more proud.”

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