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Gabriela Pierobon Mays photo

Middleton junior Gabriela Pierobon Mays is the two-time defending state champion in the 100 butterfly. 

MIDDLETON — As a Middleton graduate and former swimmer for the Cardinals, Lauren Cabalka cherishes her role as the school’s girls swimming coach.

And she relishes the program’s development into one of the state’s finest, demonstrated by WIAA Division 1 state swimming and diving championships the past two years.

“It’s special,” said Cabalka, a 2001 Middleton graduate in her 11th season at the Cardinals’ helm. “When I started coaching, I knew this is what I always wanted to do. I knew I always wanted to be here. This is where my love for the sport grew, and I knew this is where I wanted to be and what I wanted to be doing.

“I wanted to create a program my kids would one day want to come through. … It’s extra special and close to your heart when it’s your alma mater. You want to make them proud every day and that’s what we try to do.”

The top-ranked Cardinals — led by seniors Hannah Aegerter, Makenna Licking and Cora Mack, juniors Gabriela Pierobon Mays, Berkley Smith and Alex Anagnostopolous and sophomore Ally Silvestri — will seek their third consecutive state title during the Division 1 meet on Saturday at the University of Wisconsin Natatorium. The Division 2 meet is Friday, with top-ranked Madison Edgewood seeking its fourth consecutive championship.

Middleton, after finishing second in 2015, earned the program’s first state title in 2016. The Cardinals took first by a comfortable 71½ points over runner-up Cedarburg last year.

Middleton hasn’t slowed this year. The Cardinals won their ninth consecutive Big Eight Conference championship; they’ve been undefeated in conference duals since 2013. They won every dual meet and invitational they competed in and added their eighth sectional title in Cabalka’s tenure on Saturday.

“These girls believe in the system, they believe in the program and they want to leave a legacy every time they walk out the door every four years,” Cabalka said.

“These seniors right now, it really started with their sisters eight years ago and they built that for four years. And then their younger sisters came in and want to be a part of it and carry on and make it better. It’s been a really good tradition that they want to keep going.”

Aegerter won the 200-yard freestyle and the 500 freestyle in leading Middleton to the sectional title by five points over runner-up Sun Prairie. Aegerter, who has the fastest sectional qualifying time in the 200 freestyle (1 minute, 52.02 seconds) entering Saturday’s meet, said Middleton’s team-oriented approach has aided its success.

“Our points and our times are not for ourselves,” Aegerter said. “They are so our team can excel and be able to win those championships.”

Aegerter has orally committed to swim at the University of Illinois, where her sister Ashley Aegerter swam and where former Middleton teammate Caroline Hippen is a freshman. Hannah Aegerter, second at state in the 200 freestyle in 2016 and fourth a year ago, turned in a strong and confident performance Saturday that Cabalka thinks showed a different level than Aegerter displayed this season.

“I don’t know if she was looking to send a message, but she might have,” Cabalka said.

Pierobon Mays is the two-time defending champion in the 100 butterfly, though she enters as the 10th-fastest qualifier and in the second-fastest heat in the event.

Silvestri was second, behind Verona/Mount Horeb’s Grace Bennin, in the 200 individual medley (2:06.12) and 100 breaststroke (1:03.59) at sectionals.

“I sometimes put a lot of pressure on myself and I was trying not to do that,” Silvestri said. “I tried to swim my race and do whatever I could to help the team, and try to have as much fun with it as I could. I think that paid off for me because I was really happy with my times.”

Silvestri moved into the Middleton-Cross Plains school district before her freshman year and was pleased to see how well the team got along.

“It was super fun and everyone was there for each other,” she said. “Every meet, we are swimming for the team and not for ourselves. It helps that we are so close.”

Middleton’s 200 freestyle relay has won state titles the past two years, while its 200 medley relay won last year.

But Middleton’s sectional celebration was dampened because the Cardinals’ 400 freestyle relay was disqualified for a false start — meaning Middleton won’t have a relay in that race at state. That could prove critical in the team race between Middleton, Waukesha South/Mukwonago, Hartland Arrowhead, Brookfield East, Sun Prairie and Cedarburg.

“I don’t think you ever have a margin for error,” Cabalka said. “You have to swim at your fastest against those teams. We have overcome adversity (before). … But this is a relay. It’s double points. So, that is a lot harder to overcome. But if I know anything about these girls, they are going to fight, probably harder than we’ve ever seen them.”

Aegerter, a part of the 400 relay, said she couldn’t fathom that Middleton wouldn’t be in that race, the meet’s final event. But Aegerter believes the Cardinals will pull together and push even harder.

Silvestri agreed.

“Whenever we have a challenge against us, we step up to perform really well,” Silvestri said.

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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.