KAUKAUNA — The hole was simply too big for the Middleton boys volleyball team to climb out of on Saturday.
The Cardinals lost the first two sets of the WIAA alternate season state championship game on Saturday afternoon before starting to click in the third and fourth sets. However, an experienced and extremely confident Kimberly squad wouldn’t allow Middleton to come all the way back.
Up two sets to one, Kimberly broke a 19-19 tie in the fourth and escaped with a two-point victory at Kaukauna High School. That gave the Papermakers a 25-21, 25-22, 16-25, 25-23 win and back-to-back state titles.
The state runner-up finish is the best in Middleton program history.
“I talked to the guys (about how) the seniors led this team to history,” first-year Middleton coach Rob Kleinschmidt said. “It’s the first team that’s made it to a final match. We knew we had a tough match, and the seniors led us there, but the juniors, sophomores and actually freshmen as well, they helped make it. Everyone was a part of it.
“The guys came in and they had some goals for the season, and we knew it was going to take a lot of work. They put in all the work that they needed to and they brought us here. We were two points from going to that fifth game. So I can’t say how proud I am of these kids.”
Middleton junior outside hitter Cole Sweitzer was quick to point out he and his teammates were nervous in the early going. That contributed to the 0-2 start that ultimately doomed the Cardinals.
“That was definitely not our goal, to go down 0-2, but we were able to make some changes and start playing to win — and not playing not to lose,” Sweitzer said. “Once we got out of that and started swinging and playing our game that we can, it turned around.”
Kimberly (20-2) was making its third straight trip to the title match, finishing as runner-up in 2018 and winning it all in 2019. It was the Papermakers’ second win over Middleton this season.
“I thought we really felt comfortable out there and winning that first set, it felt like we were the most comfortable and they seemed to be playing a little bit nervous,” Kimberly coach Matt Seidl said. “I think that was our leadership, but also our experience. We’ve been here before.”
The Papermakers won the first two sets with an attack percentage of .353 compared to Middleton’s .267. But Middleton (10-3) kicked it into another gear in the third set and didn’t trail. The Cardinals had 12 kills in the set, led by Sweitzer with five. Kimberly had eight attack errors in the set as Middleton won going away 25-16.
Middleton middle hitter Ruben Emmerich became an integral part of the offense in sets three and four, registering six kills without an error.
“We made a little switch with Ruben and we put him in a different scenario because he was doing a great job against their big middle Jaxon (Schroeder). But at the same time, his offense and some of the big swings he gets are something that really fire us up,” Kleinschmidt said. “So, we flipped him into a spot where he could get a couple more of those swings and he did, he had some huge ones. Cole had some big swings.”
With all the momentum on their side in the fourth, the Cardinals took a 7-3 lead. But Kimberly outside hitter Cooper Polczinski was just too much. He pounded down three of his match-high 23 kills as the Papermakers tied it 8-8. In a back-and-forth set, Kimberly led 24-21 but Middleton wasn’t going to give up on match point.
Ben Heise and Jacob Andler — who finished with seven kills each — had back-to-back kills to make it a one-point set. However, Hayden Karpinski closed out the match with a kill for Kimberly.
Middleton actually finished the match with a better attack percentage, 34.7 compared to Kimberly’s 30.3. The Cardinals had fewer hitting errors, 19-16, as well. Kimberly just hit the big shots in key situations.
Of Kimberly’s 52 kills in the match, 46 were by four players.
“We had to try and think of a lot of ways we could try to defend that and I think we started to get that going towards the end,” said Sweitzer, who had a team-high 13 kills. “I give them credit, they put a lot of balls down and made a lot of things that were really hard for us to get and come back from.”
Losing the state title match wasn’t what the Middleton players had in mind, but they know their season will always be remembered.
“It means a lot from going from not having a season at all to being able to play on the last day of the season, which was always our goal,” Sweitzer said. “I feel bad for the seniors that we couldn’t capitalize, but we’ve got a good group coming back next year that we can hopefully make it back to the same day.”