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Big game from Cole Toennies powers Middleton football team past Madison Memorial in playoff opener
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WIAA FOOTBALL | MIDDLETON 33, MADISON MEMORIAL 3

Big game from Cole Toennies powers Middleton football team past Madison Memorial in playoff opener

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MIDDLETON — As the old football adage goes, in big games, teams rely on their big-time players to make plays.

Count senior receiver and cornerback Cole Toennies in that category for the Middleton football team.

While most WIAA football programs have opted to play a shortened fall schedule due to COVID-19, most Madison-area high schools — including the entire Big Eight Conference and every Rock Valley Conference school except Madison Edgewood — have committed to an alternative spring season, leaving their stadiums eerily empty this fall.

The 6-foot-2, 180-pound Toennies caught two touchdown passes and forced a fumble that he recovered in leading host and third-seeded Middleton to a 33-3 victory over sixth-seeded Madison Memorial in a WIAA Division 1 first-round playoff game Friday night.

Toennies’ touchdown receptions of 68 and 22 yards on passes from sophomore quarterback Gabe Passini helped the Cardinals (7-3) overcome an early 3-0 deficit against the Spartans (5-5) in the penalty-plagued game.

“He’s a pretty special player,” Middleton coach Jason Pertzborn said about Toennies. “He has a refuse-to-lose mentality. He just makes plays.”

Cardinals senior defensive back Colin Krueger’s 80-yard interception return for a touchdown late in the second quarter gave Middleton a 20-3 lead and breathing room entering halftime.

“That was one of the top plays of the year for us,” Pertzborn said. “That broke the game open.”

Middleton advances to play next week at second-seeded Wisconsin Rapids, which defeated seventh-seeded Oshkosh West 35-0.

“I think that we didn’t play our best football,” Toennies said. “We made a lot of mistakes and penalties hurt us and could have cost us a lot. But I think this shows a lot about our team and our resiliency to still put up the score we did even when things weren’t always going our way. I think we made some big plays to get the `W.’’’

Passini went deep and Toennies, along the right sideline, hauled in the contested pass and broke free for a 68-yard touchdown reception with 2 minutes, 54 seconds left in the first quarter — giving Middleton a 6-3 lead.

“I just went up and got it, and tried to stay on my feet, and I did,” said Toennies, who joined some other teammates in getting their hair buzzed and bleached for the postseason.

Middleton gained excellent field position for its next series. A high snap on a Spartans’ punt led to the Cardinals taking over on the Memorial 24-yard line.

Passini rolled to his left and fired a 22-yard touchdown strike to Toennies, who got his foot down in the left corner of the end zone with 1:01 left in the first quarter. Middleton led 12-3 after a two-point conversion pass failed.

“We were doing our best,” Spartans coach Mike Harris said. “Our objective was to fight as hard as we could in the first quarter. We knew how well they strike and have scored points on teams in the first quarter. It’s just one of those situations where our team was not matched accordingly.”

A bad snap on a Middleton punt set up Memorial at the Cardinals’ 28 with 2:49 left in the second quarter.

But Memorial junior quarterback Charles Erlandson’s pass on third-and-10 was picked off by Krueger, who raced 80 yards for a touchdown 2:24 before halftime. Senior running back Elijah Gray scored on a two-point conversion run and Middleton increased its lead to 20-3.

With 10:46 left in the third quarter, Toennies came up with a forced fumble and fumble recovery at the Middleton 19 at the end of a 45-yard pass play from Erlandson to sophomore receiver Mekai Ward.

The Spartans had the early advantage after junior Joe Mueller recovered Bryce Falk’s fumble at the Middleton 20 on the game’s opening kickoff.

Erlandson appeared to score on a 1-yard sneak on third down, but the touchdown was nullified by an illegal-shift penalty. An incompletion by Erlandson followed. Freshman Ty Aparicio wound up kicking a 22-yard field goal, giving Memorial a 3-0 lead with 9:24 remaining in the first quarter.

“When we fumbled and they got the ball in the red zone and we made a stop, that made us feel pretty good about ourselves,” Toennies said. “I think that was a huge stop. The D-line came up with a bunch of plays. … I think that was a statement for us to make right at the start.”

Pertzborn agreed, saying: “The defense did what they always do. I think they proved tonight they are one of the best around. The way that started and to hold them to three points, I think that took some of the wind out of their sails.”

Passini completed his first four passes for 110 yards, with Toennies on the receiving end of three of those for 100 yards. Passini wound up 8-for-11 for 157 yards, while Toennies finished with four catches for 125 yards.

Erlandson finished 11-for-30 for 155 yards, with one interception. Senior Devion Fountain had four receptions for 77 yards and Ward had three for 73.

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Jon Masson covers high school sports for the Wisconsin State Journal. He has covered a variety of sports — including the Green Bay Packers and Wisconsin men's and women's basketball and volleyball — since he first came to the State Journal in 1999.

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