Before Lily Welti and Hannah Flottmeyer became the only two freshman to make Middleton’s varsity volleyball team, they were fierce middle-school rivals.

“We really didn’t like each other back then,” Flottmeyer said.

The two went to different schools before high school and often played against each other — which led to the on-court rivalry.

But it didn’t take long for that relationship to change. In 2015, the two made the Cardinals varsity in their first year at Middleton, and they quickly bonded.

“They had no choice. They were the two freshmen, so they had to bond together," Cardinals coach Franco Marcos joked. "If not, the upperclassmen would take care of them.”

Of course, the two are close friends now, visiting one another’s houses for dinner and hanging out frequently outside of school.

They’re also leading the charge for a Middleton squad that clinched a share of the Big Eight regular season title, falling just once in conference play to perennial powerhouse Sun Prairie.

The Cardinals have a chance to break the tie with Sun Prairie and Verona at Saturday's conference tournament, to be played at Janesville Craig. Sun Prairie is seeded first and Middleton second.

Welti’s and Flottmeyer’s on-court chemistry blossomed quickly, despite their adversarial relationship throughout middle school.

“We were always used to playing against each other, so it was definitely a cool situation to be able to finally get to play on the same side of the court,” Welti said. “We just made each other stronger. We pushed each other to be like the upperclassmen and earn our spots.”

The two, both in their junior year, have earned their spots and then some. Flottmeyer, a middle blocker, led the Big Eight in blocks with 187.

Welti, an outside hitter who has committed to play at St. Louis University, finished second in the conference in kills with 297 and third in digs with 274.

But outside of pure talent, the pair’s intangibles have allowed the Cardinals to soar to new heights.

“It’s great to have players who have a passion for the sport, as opposed to just playing it because maybe Mom and Dad want you to,” Marcos said. “And with their leadership, it makes my life easier, too. Sometimes I can just sit back and relax and let the players figure it out themselves.”

Marcos immediately recognized Welti as someone who could take a leadership role, making her a captain during her sophomore year. That reputation is due in large part to her constant effort in practice — Marcos said Welti simply refuses to let up.

“At times it’s tough to have her go 80 or 90 percent. It’s always full blast. And that’s exactly what you want,” Marcos said. “She’s a kid that just brings it.”

The Cardinals are now gearing up for a postseason run, one that they hope ends at the WIAA Division 1 state tournament.

But they will first play in the Big Eight Conference tournament this Saturday, which Marcos views as preparation for the “Big Dance,” which begins for Middleton on Thursday, Oct. 19. The fourth-seeded Cardinals play host to No. 13 Tomah at 7 p.m., with the winner advancing to a regional final on Saturday against Madison West or Monona Grove.

Should the Cardinals clear those two hurdles, waiting in their path could be a gauntlet that includes Sun Prairie, Waunakee and Verona.

Nonetheless, the mission for the Cardinals remains the same: End the season at the Resch Center in Green Bay.

“It’s been a goal all season long, and we’re working day in and day out for it,” Welti said.

Added Flottmeyer: “I think we all try to have that mentality in practice right now. We all kind of have that goal and we can keep each other accountable and drive toward that.”