Catholic Memorial hadn’t faced Middleton all season making for a rare state quarterfinal between two of the state’s best boys volleyball teams meeting for the first time. CMH puts its games on YouTube, so Middleton coach Ben White was able to get a good feel for what the Crusaders could do.
Stopping them was another matter.
Memorial advanced from the WIAA state-tournament opener with a 25-23, 25-27, 25-17, 25-20 victory, overcoming a scrappy and determined Middleton squad to reach a semifinal battle with New Berlin on Saturday.
“We didn’t know much about them and really hadn't faced a team of their level in a while,” Memorial right-side hitter Joe Heyrman said. “We hadn't been in many tournaments down the stretch. It was good to get our head together and collect our thoughts. They're a really scrappy team, and we had a hard time just putting the ball down. We really had to re-focus. It was a good reminder; it's good to be battle tested early on in the tournament. Every team here is a great team.”
Marquette and Wauwatosa East were scheduled to meet in the other semifinal.
It was the fourth straight year Middleton fell in the opening round and fifth straight appearance overall. The Cardinals showed they were a worthy opponent, clawing their way to a second-set victory after watching an 18-12 lead dissolve into a 21-all tie. Brian Vergenz (12 kills) delivered the kill and the block that allowed the Cards to hold on for the win, but CMH was able to pull away in the third set and hit the after-burners in the fourth after Middleton had pulled to within 22-20.
“If you're ahead with the big lead and you give it up and lose, those are the ones that sting more than when you go down early and fight your way back,” CMH coach Dan Chipman said. “It was a momentum boost that we were able to come back. We had some great serving runs and showed we know if we put our serves in and hit some tough spots, we're going to be able to do this.”
CMH was able to stay away in serve receive from Middleton junior libero Thomas Robson, a player White considers perhaps the best passer in the state. Meanwhile, CMH showed it knew a thing or two about the back row.
“Everybody they throw in can pass,” White said. “There's no hole on that team. You have to try to get momentum and get on a run.”
Memorial relies on the high-velocity swings of outside hitter Ryan Brown (17 kills and middle blocker Zach Engsberg (12), but it was Heyrman (nine) and Dom Coello (10) who made the Crusaders so tough to stop, providing multiple secondary options.
“They run a really fast offense, and the block was hard to find,” said Middleton senior Jack Herder, who finished with two solo blocks and five assists. “And whenever we would send the ball over, their passers would get the ball right to the setter every single time. They could pretty much run whatever, whenever they wanted, and that made it really difficult to keep up with them.”
Added Heyrman, “Ben (Peschl, CMH setter) does a great job spreading the ball around. He doesn't necessarily just focus on Zach and Ryan. Great hitters; they pull the block away from us, and Ben does a great job of knowing the perfect time to send it back to me or send it over to Dom.”
Josh Gabelman finished with 10 digs, and Peschl posted seven to accompany five assist blocks. Engsberg had two solos and five assists. Six different players finished with at least four digs.
“Good passing also helped,” Coello said. “With a good pass, you can put it anywhere. Normally with Zach in the middle, they always think it’s going to the middle. If (Peschl) sends it to the outsides, it’s going to be open.”