For a casual volleyball watcher, Middleton’s overpowering front-line hitters might be the big headline going into the Cardinals’ WIAA state tournament trip.
But that high-flying attack would not be possible without the strong defensive play of libero Dylan Griffith and setter Matt Ballweg, who will lead Middleton into its sixth consecutive state trip with the highest seeding — No. 3 — in program history.
The Cardinals will meet Kenosha Indian Trail at 8 p.m. Friday in a quarterfinal of the eight-team tournament, which runs through Saturday at Wisconsin Lutheran College in Milwaukee.
Coming into the season, Griffith had a steep hill to climb. He was replacing four-year starter Thomas Robson, chosen as the first-team all-state libero in 2017. But the senior filled the role admirably, earning first team all-Big Eight honors.
“Dylan’s been so solid, and this year he jumped into the libero position and he’s really been one of the most consistent passers I’ve had in my 18 years,” longtime Cardinals coach Ben White said.
Griffith’s rock-solid passing is an anchor for the Cardinals, as he averages 3.6 digs per set. He was joined on the all-Big Eight first team by outside hitters Eagan Peters-Michaud and Parker Van Buren.
Each brings a markedly different style to the team. In practice, Peters-Michaud displays a highly trained, flawless technique, whipping the ball to the ground; Van Buren is a more raw, but no less intimidating talent. He stands at 6 feet, 6 inches and is able to overpower just about anyone put before him. But Griffith enables it all, digging out opposing attacks to set up his team’s fearsome front line.
“In my recent years, this team is one of the top ones I’ve coached,” White said. “This year we have more offensive firepower, more weapons on the outside and middles. We’re not so reliant on one player.”
Despite making six straight state trips, the Cardinals have not advanced to the semifinals since 2008 and have never reached the title match. This year, Griffith likes Middleton’s chances against a team it defeated in its own Cardinal Invitational last month.
“We got probably one of our ideal matchups that we were looking for with Indian Trail, and I think we’re pretty confident,” Griffith said. “All we have to do is just focus, play our game and be ready to go on Friday night.”
When asked about the threats Indian Trail presents, Griffith pointed to junior right-side hitter Nathan Klimisch, who ranks third in the state in kills this season with 396. In practice Monday night, the Cardinals were setting their scheme to counter the hard-hitting junior, setting block after block on the right side to prepare for Klimisch.
“He’s their main guy, he got 50 percent of the sets the first time we played them,” setter Matt Ballweg said. “We just have to keep an eye on him and then we should be fine.”