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For Middleton coach Lauren Cabalka, the significance of the moment was beginning to sink in Saturday night.

Cabalka and the Cardinals had just finished a celebratory plunge into the University of Wisconsin Natatorium pool after Middleton earned its first WIAA Division 1 state girls swimming and diving championship.

“It’s amazing,” said Cabalka, a 2001 Middleton graduate who swam four years for the Cardinals. “This is something you work for all season. This is the program I grew up in and where I learned to love swimming. And to come back and coach here … Things like this don’t happen much in life. It’s pretty special.”

Freshman Gabriela Pierobon Mays finished first in the 100 butterfly and the Cardinals’ 200 and 400 freestyle relays were victorious as Middleton totaled 265 points and ended Hartland Arrowhead’s two-year title reign.

“We started the season and state was the goal — to win state,” Pierobon Mays said. “We believed we could do it, but these teams in Wisconsin are fast. It’s not a walk in the park. To actually win, I don’t have the words to describe it.”

Verona/Mount Horeb, led by sophomore Grace Bennin’s victory in the 100 breaststroke, finished second with 215.5 points. Arrowhead was third with 180 and Cedarburg had 168.5.

Four Big Eight Conference teams placed in the top six. Madison West, led by sophomore Katrina Marty’s 100 backstroke victory, finished fifth with 135 and Sun Prairie was sixth with 128, propelled by senior Rachel Powers’ 500 freestyle victory.

Pierobon Mays’ 100 butterfly win in the sixth event helped the Cardinals move ahead of Cedarburg and Verona/Mount Horeb in the team race. Pierobon Mays, the top seed, finished first in a personal-record 55.00 seconds, just ahead of her friend Marty, second in :55.30.

“I was really nervous,” Pierobon Mays said. “Just winning for my team was what I wanted to do — getting points for the team. I’m so happy (for Marty). She pushed me so hard. I wouldn’t have had the times I had without her.”

The Cardinals began to build a cushion when sophomore Cora Mack and junior Caroline Hippen, both swimming in the second of three heats in the 100 freestyle, wound up with the second- and sixth-best times overall and picked up 30 points.

Cabalka said she grew confident about a Middleton title when the Cardinals’ team of Mack, sophomore Makenna Licking, Hippen and sophomore Hannah Aegerter won the 200 freestyle relay in 1:33.72 and collected 40 points. The Big Eight claimed the top four spots as Madison West, Verona/Mount Horeb and Madison Memorial finished 2-3-4.

“I cannot put into words the importance of her swims today,” Cabalka said about Mack, also third in the 50 freestyle.

The Middleton team of Aegerter, Hippen, Mack and Pierobon Mays sealed the title when they won the 400 freestyle relay in 3:24.94.

Bennin won the 100 breaststroke in 1:02.13 after narrowly finishing second to Brookfield Central junior Gwen Gustafson in the 50 freestyle.

“I worked really hard all season,” said Bennin, a Mount Horeb student. “Everyone was very encouraging of me. It’s nice to make them all proud.”

Powers claimed her first state title, winning the 500 in 4:56.19. She beat runner-up Alyssa Graves, an Arrowhead freshman, by more than 3 seconds.

“I told myself on the starting blocks, ‘I can do this,’ ” the Nebraska recruit said. “It was my last high school 500; I had to give it everything I had. My coaches told me to take charge in the first 100, then the adrenaline kept me going.”

West’s Marty came through in the 100 backstroke, finishing first in :54.31. Pierobon Mays placed third in :54.69.

Marty enjoyed competing against Pierobon Mays, whom Marty said she first met in youth swimming in Verona.

“She was the first person I met; she’s the sweetest person,” Marty said. “It’s really fun to compete against her. She’s incredible. We do the same events, so we understand each other and what we are going through.”

Cedarburg junior Lillie Hosack set a state record while defending her title in the 200 individual medley in 1:59.57.

Janesville Craig junior Erin Donagan and Verona/Mount Horeb senior Maizie Seidl were third and fourth, respectively, in the 200 IM. Seidl also earned third place in the 100 freestyle, behind Cedarburg’s Skylar Fore of Cedarburg and Mack.

Middleton was second and Madison West third in the 200 medley relay.

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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.