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Sun Prairie softball

Sun Prairie's Leah Hamilton slides into home plate as Beloit Memorial catcher Jaelyn Ryan can't handle the throw in the second inning Thursday.

SUN PRAIRIE — After Beloit Memorial leadoff hitter Natalie Bittner opened the game with a double, Sun Prairie junior pitcher Maddie Gardner demonstrated one of her strongest attributes.

Unflustered, Gardner shrugged off the hit and worked her way out of a potential early jam without permitting a run.

The right-hander didn’t allow another hit until the sixth inning Thursday night, struck out 11 and walked none while throwing a two-hitter. Gardner led defending WIAA Division 1 state champion Sun Prairie to an 8-1 Big Eight Conference softball victory over Beloit Memorial, expected to be one of the Cardinals’ chief challengers in league play.

“I just try to stay calm,” said Gardner, a University of Wisconsin recruit. “I call it mound presence — pretty much not showing your emotions, staying focused on what you need to do and going after the next hitter.”

Gardner and senior center fielder Sabrina Reuter, an MATC commit, are the only returning starters for defending conference champion Sun Prairie (2-0 overall, 1-0 Big Eight), which finished 29-0 last year, including 18-0 in league play.

“It’s kind of hard losing seven of your nine starters, but, then again, these girls were here through most of it,” Gardner said. “I think we can be as good if not better than last year. They learn quick, they learn a lot and they are doing really great, I think.”

Said Sun Prairie coach Jamie Olson: “These girls have some big shoes to fill, but I think it showed tonight they have some big shoes themselves.”

Reigning Big Eight Player of the Year Gardner worked during the offseason to get stronger and to improve movement on her pitches. She also further developed a “low rise” pitch, which she said can fool hitters into wondering whether a fastball or a pitch that breaks down is coming.

“She has put in a lot of time into the offseason going into this year, knowing a lot of the weight is going to be on her,” Olson said of Gardner. “With that, though, she has the utmost confidence in the players behind her, which is amazing.”

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Cardinals junior designated player Bailee Hadley collected three hits against the Purple Knights (1-1, 1-1), including a solo home run to left-center that started a three-run outburst in the second inning. Hadley drove in three runs, also singling in a run in the third and another during a three-run sixth.

“She’s off to a good start,” Olson said of Hadley. “She had some good hits against Lodi (in a 16-0 victory last week). And tonight ... she made good, solid contact. She is seeing the ball well right now.”

Gardner helped her cause with two of Sun Prairie’s 10 hits, including knocking in two runs with a sixth-inning single.

Senior first baseman Grace Hilber doubled in Sun Prairie’s second run in the second. The third run scored when Cardinals junior shortstop Ellie Rademacher’s grounder was booted for an error. Rademacher is in her first year playing softball after being in the Sun Prairie baseball program, Olson said.

“We knew coming into this that just because they lost their seniors from last year, that was nothing we could take for granted,” Beloit Memorial coach Jennifer Pozzani said. “We knew Gardner was going to throw and she was going to throw well. We were hoping to jump on it a little bit and see what we could do. We’re definitely much improved from our games with them last year. We hit the ball hard, but it went to people. We had base runners. We are trying to improve every day.”

Beloit Memorial 000 001 0 — 1 2 2

Sun Prairie 031 103 x — 8 10 1

Pitchers (ip-h-er-bb-k) — BM: Walker (L, 6-10-8-1-3); SP: Gardner (W, 7-2-1-0-11).

Leading hitters — BM: 2B — Bittner. SP: Hadley 3x4, Gardner 2x4, Spatola 2x4. 2B — Hilber. HR — Hadley.

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.