GRAND CHUTE — Sun Prairie baseball coach Rob Hamilton couldn’t remember being part of anything like the bottom of the first inning Thursday.
After Menomonee Falls grabbed a one-run lead in the top of first inning, Sun Prairie answered with 10 runs on five hits and five Phoenix errors in the bottom of the first.
Top-seeded and top-ranked Sun Prairie rode that improbable beginning to a 10-7 victory over fifth-seeded and seventh-ranked Menomonee Falls in a WIAA Division 1 state semifinal at Fox Cities Stadium.
Sun Prairie (28-2) advanced to the Division 1 championship game, scheduled for 6 p.m. Thursday. Sun Prairie will face the winner of the second semifinal between second-seeded and second-ranked Bay Port and sixth-seeded Eau Claire Memorial.
Menomonee Falls finished 26-4.
“Win and move on,” Hamilton said. “We’ll take that one.”
While he said that “it was huge” to take such a big early lead, he acknowledged he almost couldn’t believe what he was seeing unfold in the bottom of the first.
Phoenix senior center fielder Luke Nowak doubled to right leading off the game, advancing to third on an error on the play. Nowak scored on sophomore shortstop Keli Grennier’s single to left.
But the bottom of the first turned disastrous for the Phoenix and starting pitcher Cole Fialco -- and game-changing for the Cardinals, who sent 15 runners to the plate in the inning.
After Cardinals senior Carson Shepard walked, Fialco fielded junior Davis Hamilton’s grounder but threw errantly to second, permitting both runners to reach.
With one out, Fialco’s error on a throw over to first allowed Shepard to score from third with the Cardinals’ first run.
An error on senior Liam Moreno’s grounder to short resulted in the Cardinals’ second run.
Senior Brady Stevens drove in the third run with a single, then senior Carter Wambach followed with an RBI-walk and junior Addison Ostrenga had a run-scoring single. The sixth run scored when Shepard was hit by a pitch with the bases loaded.
Zach Wolfram relieved Fialco, who lasted one-third of an inning and was charged with nine unearned runs. An error, senior Josh Caron’s run-scoring single and another error led to four more runs scoring for the Cardinals.
Wolfram held the Cardinals in check after that, while Menomonee Falls chipped away at the deficit with single runs in the third and fifth and four runs in the sixth. Senior catcher Zach Alburg hit a solo homer in the fifth.
Cardinals starting pitcher Jackson Hunley, a sophomore right-hander, pitched the first three innings. He permitted two runs, one earned, before Davis Hamilton and Caron worked in relief.
“It’s crazy,” Hunley, who also had two hits, said about the experience. “I’ve always dreamed about being on the field here.”
Caron told Hunley not to worry after the Phoenix scored in the first inning.
“We know our offense will come through,” Caron said.
The Cardinals’ offense did come through and Hunley said he appreciated having a “big-time cushion.”
Caron, the Cardinals’ starting catcher and a Nebraska commit, pitched the final 1 1/3 innings and didn’t permit a hit. He said with a nine-run lead he didn’t expect he would end up being needed in relief, but was ready when called upon.
Rob Hamilton said he’d have to see how Hunley’s arm feels to determine his availability for the title game.
“As of now, everyone is on the table (to pitch),” Hunley said.
The two teams combined for 10 errors, including five by Sun Prairie. Fialco was charged with three errors and Grennier two for Menomonee Falls.
Hamilton said the defensive performance was uncharacteristic of his team.
“I don’t think it’s anything to get worried about,” Caron said. “We will come out and play our game (Thursday night).”
Caron said he believed the Cardinals might have become “fat and happy” with the big lead, though Hunley said: “I think we did a really good job staying up the whole game, and keeping the energy up.”
Sun Prairie made its 16th state tournament appearance. The Cardinals finished second in 2019 (the 2020 spring season was canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic). Sun Prairie has been state champion eight times, which leads the WIAA membership for baseball championships.
Menomonee Falls made its first appearance in the spring tournament after making eight appearances in the summer program, most recently in 2018, the last season of summer baseball.
The Cardinals defeated eighth-seeded Onalaska 6-1 and the Phoenix defeated fourth-seeded Pewaukee 8-6 in the quarterfinals last Friday in Fond du Lac.
Bay Port handled Eau Claire Memorial in Thursday's other state semifinal, 8-1, as pitchers Theo Zeidler and Elijah Frank held the Old Abes (22-8) to five hits. Carl Cano went 3-for-3 with a double and drove in four runs for the winners.