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GRAND CHUTE – Once the Sun Prairie baseball team’s youth brigade found its footing, the Cardinals surged in the season's second half.

Sun Prairie’s rush for gold continued to accelerate Tuesday night when the Cardinals upended second-ranked Burlington 6-1 in a WIAA Division 1 state tournament semifinal at Fox Cities Stadium.

Cardinals senior right-hander Robbie Knorr tossed a seven-hit, complete-game victory, sophomore left fielder Josh Caron had three hits and drove in three runs, senior first baseman Benett Halbleib knocked in two runs and Sun Prairie (24-7) turned three double plays against the Demons (24-6).

That victory followed Big Eight Conference runner-up Sun Prairie’s 3-2 triumph over 10th-ranked Oak Creek in a Division 1 quarterfinal earlier Tuesday. The Cardinals, who have won a WIAA-best eight state titles, advanced to the Division 1 championship game at 6 p.m. Thursday, where they will face the winner of Tuesday’s late semifinal, Eau Claire North, which defeated Fond du Lac, 8-4. 

Knorr picked up his first victory while making his first start this season, mixing his changeup, fastball and curveballs during a 95-pitch outing.

“He’s a senior and we expect seniors to come here and play well,” Sun Prairie coach Rob Hamilton said. “I don’t know if we expected that. That was one of the best games we’ve had pitched here. Wow, hats off to him.”

Knorr allowed one unearned run in the second inning.

“It was great,” said Knorr, who normally plays shortstop and had pitched solely in relief. “Once they gave me the five runs, I knew I would settle down. … I loved it (when given the starting assignment). I wanted to pitch so badly.”

The Cardinals scored five runs in the first two innings against Burlington senior right-hander Trent Turzenski, a 6-foot-6, 220-pound Valparaiso commit. He departed due to the pitch limit after throwing 101 pitches in 3 2/3 innings, striking out seven but allowing five runs on six hits.

“We had to get those early runs to take the pressure off, because the game against Oak Creek we played with a lot of pressure,” Caron said. “That’s not how we play baseball. We play loose and have fun out there. … We knew Burlington was a great team. All credit to them, they played well. We had confidence going into that game. We knew we were the underdogs and we took it to them.”

The Demons loaded the bases on three singles with one out in the top of the first, but the Cardinals turned a double play to escape the jam. 

“Oh, my, gosh, that was a huge double play,” Hamilton said. “Everything they hit had eyes. But that one didn’t. They hit it right to us. Our kids did a great job of not rushing it. They turned the double play and we didn’t look back.”

The Cardinals then struck for three runs in the bottom of the inning. Caron singled in a run and Halbleib drove in two runs with a single.

Burlington scored a run in the second aided by a hit, walk and Sun Prairie error. But the Cardinals responded with two more runs in the bottom of the second and seized a 5-1 lead. Caron drove in the two runs with a two-out single to right.

Junior right fielder Spencer Bartel belted a triple to dead-center with one out in the sixth. After Caron walked, junior catcher Matt DePrey’s bunt brought home Bartel with the Cardinals’ sixth run.

“Man, the kids played well,” Hamilton said. “They are deserving of it. They beat a really, really good Burlington team. So, yeah, we are pretty excited.”

Sun Prairie 3, Oak Creek 2 

GRAND CHUTE — After Oak Creek put two runners on base in the bottom of the sixth inning Tuesday, Sun Prairie baseball coach Rob Hamilton believed the time was right for a bit of deception.

Hamilton came out to the mound while Oak Creek inserted two pinch runners for hitters who’d reached on Sun Prairie errors and called for a hidden-ball trick the Cardinals had been saving for the opportune moment.

The result of the play — after Cardinals junior right fielder Spencer Bartel scored the go-ahead run in the top of the sixth inning — became a game-changer in Sun Prairie’s 3-2 quarterfinal victory over 10th-ranked Oak Creek at the WIAA Division 1 state baseball tournament at Fox Cities Stadium.

Junior pitcher Carson Fluno, who had stepped off the mound, faked a throw to first, where senior first baseman Benett Halbleib turned in an Oscar-worthy performance running toward the stands as if the ball had flown by.

Fluno then picked off Knights junior Austin Scoville at second base, with Cardinals senior shortstop Robbie Knorr applying the tag. Fluno then ended the Knights’ threat with a strikeout.

“That might have been the first time we tried it this year,” Sun Prairie coach Rob Hamilton said. “It’s always been in our duffel bag. … I thought there was probably no better time than right then when we did it. The kids executed it great, and it was a big out.”

Fluno said the players needed to sell the trickery.

“It was just something we practiced the other day and we knew we could do it,” Fluno said. “We just went at them. It worked and we executed it. … It was really important. It helped me get out of that inning. It was a key out and then I got back into the confidence of pitching.”

Fluno, relying on his fastball while striking out six in four innings of shutout relief for Sun Prairie (23-7), allowed a one-out hit in the seventh. But he closed the door on Oak Creek (21-7), snapping the Knights’ nine-game winning streak by fanning the side in the seventh.

That sent the Big Eight Conference runner-up Cardinals to their seventh consecutive victory and into a Division 1 state semifinal Tuesday night against second-ranked Burlington, which blanked fourth-ranked Green Bay Preble 3-0 in the day’s first quarterfinal.

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“I think we always knew that we could get there,” Bartel said, when asked about Sun Prairie’s early season struggles. “But there were a lot of learning curves. Now I think we are over the learning curves and playing the best baseball we have all year.”

Said Fluno: “Right now, we are through the roof. We have to take a deep breath. We have another big game coming.”

It was an exciting moment for the 6-foot, 160-pound Fluno, whose season was interrupted in April by an emergency appendectomy that sent him to the hospital.

“I’m 100%,” Fluno said. “I feel amazing.”

When he was sidelined after surgery, he said he didn’t anticipate being the winning pitcher in a state quarterfinal.

“No, not at all,” Fluno said. “I was just happy to be out here again. I was happy to be playing ball again.”

The Cardinals scored the go-ahead run in the top of the sixth. Bartel led off with a triple to right-center.

“Lead-off triples are always nice in a close game, late,” Hamilton said. “I had a feeling we could push him across with our hitters we had coming up after that. That was a big, big hit.”

Sophomore Brady Stevens -- pinch-running for sophomore Josh Caron, who walked – then attempted to steal second. The throw by Oak Creek senior catcher Colin Kalinowski hit the sliding Stevens in the helmet and deflected toward left field.

Bartel scored, giving Sun Prairie a 3-2 lead.

“After hitting two balls up the middle hard, there was nothing really else you can do but hit another ball hard,” Bartel said.

Said Hamilton about the play involving Stevens at second: “That’s what happens in these close games. Little things are going to determine it.”

The Cardinals scored the game’s first run in the first inning. Sophomore second baseman Carson Shepard, who had three hits and scored two runs in the game, led off with a single to left-center.

Shepard eventually scored on Caron’s sacrifice fly.

The Cardinals made two good defensive plays in the bottom of the first after the Knights loaded the bases. Sophomore third baseman Drew Urban snared a line drive for the second out and Shepard made a leaping catch in short right field for the final out in the inning.

But the Knights came back with two runs in the bottom of the second. Junior third baseman Logan Brahm doubled in the first run against Cardinals starter Noah Wendler and junior center fielder Gunnar Doyle put Oak Creek ahead 2-1 with a sacrifice fly.

The Cardinals responded, tying the game with a third-inning run. Shepard doubled off the base of the wall in left field and moved to third on sophomore designated hitter Liam Moreno’s single. Shepard scored on a fielder’s choice by Bartel.

Fluno battled out of a jam in the fifth. Doyle doubled into the left-field corner and moved to third on a sacrifice. But Fluno struck out the next two batters, stranding Doyle at third, and held the Knights scoreless the rest of the way.

“(We have) just a lot of young guys,” Bartel said. “We are just battling. We just have a lot of young people that just want to play, (who are) really coachable.”

Burlington;010;000;0;—;1;7;1

Sun Prairie;320;001;0;—;6;7;1

Pitchers (ip-h-er-bb-so) — B: Turzenski (L; 3.2-6-5-3-7), Dietz (2.1-1-1-1-2); SP: Knorr (W; 7-7-0-1-4). HBP: Turzenski 2 (Powley, Halbleib). WP: Turzenski 3; Knorr 1.

Leading hitters — B: Krause 2x3, Adams 1x3, Turzenski 1x3, Damon 1x2, Peterson 1x3, Rozell 1x2. SP: Caron 3x3, Halbleib 2x3, Bartel 1x4, DePrey 1x3, Halbleib 1x3, Wendler 1x3; 3B —  Bartel; RBI —  Caron 3, Halbleib 2, Caron 1; SAC —  DePrey. SB —  Hamilton. LOB —  B 4; SP 10. DP —  SP 3.

Sun Prairie;101;001;0;—;3;7;3

Oak Creek;020;000;0;—;2;7;1

Pitchers (ip-h-er-bb-so) — SP: Wendler (W; 3-5-2-1-1), Fluno (4-2-0-0-6); OC: Pisca (L; 5-6-3-3-1), Engelbrecht (2-1-0-0-3). WP — Fluno 1. HBP — Fluno 1 (Brahm).

Leading hitters — SP: Shepard 3x4, Moreno 1x2, Bartel 1x3, Knorr 1x2, Powley 1x3; 2B: Shepard; 3B: Bartel. OC: Doyle 2x3, Peterson 1x3, Kalinowski 1x4, Zakula 1x3, Johnstone 1x3, Brahm 1x2; 2B: Doyle, Johnstone, Brahm. SAC — Halbleib, Caron; Peterson, Doyle. SB — Bartel, Powley; Doyle. CS — Shepard. DP — OC 2; SP 1.

Bucky!

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Jon Masson covers high school sports for the Wisconsin State Journal. He has covered a variety of sports — including the Green Bay Packers and Wisconsin men's and women's basketball and volleyball — since he first came to the State Journal in 1999.