Look no further than the pitching circle to see who leads the way for the Sun Prairie softball team.

There is just no denying the significance junior pitcher Maddie Gardner plays for the Cardinals.

“Maddie carries the team,” Sun Prairie coach Jamie Olson said. “She has a lot of weight on her shoulders.”

Gardner allowed six hits, struck out 10 and drove in two runs while leading defending state champion Sun Prairie to a 5-2 come-from-behind victory over Pulaski in a WIAA Division 1 state softball semifinal game Friday night at Goodman Diamond.

Following the game that ended at 11:16 p.m. Friday, second-seeded Sun Prairie (27-3) advanced to Saturday’s Division 1 championship game against top-seeded and undefeated Oshkosh North (30-0) at 6:30 p.m. Third-seeded Pulaski finished 24-6.

Sun Prairie rallied from a 1-0 deficit, scoring three runs on two hits and an error in the bottom of the third inning.

“That’s the biggest thing,” Olson said after Friday’s game. “They don’t give up. Teams can score one, two, three runs on us, and they are not down. They don’t hang their heads. They don’t get down on themselves or their teammates. They are continuously upbeat (and) positive in the dugout. Ready to go and do what they need to do. If it doesn’t come around in one inning, the next thing they are still back at it. They are not afraid. And that is a big thing.

“You know what? You don’t need super-big hits. (You) chip way. Make them make the mistakes and let us run the bases.”

Gardner, who has orally committed to the University of Wisconsin, knocked in the go-ahead run with a fielder’s choice and senior first baseman Grace Hilber had an RBI groundout.

“I could tell my teammates had some doubts,” Gardner said about falling behind. “But I knew and I think most of us knew we just had to keep going. It was do or die. We had to keep going. We had to push through. Where there is a will, there is a way.”

The inning began with singles by freshman catcher Chloe Knoernschild and sophomore shortstop Grace Radlund. Senior center fielder Sabrina Reuter’s hard grounder to short wasn’t handled and the play, ruled an error, allowed Knoernschild to score the tying run.

After Reuter stole second, Gardner reached on a fielder’s choice that brought Radlund with the second run. MATC commit Reuter scored on Hilber’s groundout to second, putting Sun Prairie ahead 3-1.

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Gardner drove in the Cardinals’ fourth run with a fifth-inning hit. Reuter singled with two out, then stole second. She scored on Gardner’s single to center.

“It kind of gives me a little bit more room if I make a mistake or my teammates make a mistake,” Gardner said of having a three-run lead. “It kind of cushions us.”

The Cardinals added an insurance run in the sixth, prior to the Red Raiders making a late threat in the seventh. Pulaski scored one run on three hits and an error, but Gardner worked out of the jam, ending the game.

Pulaski junior third baseman Kamryn Brockman drove in the game’s first run in the third inning with a one-out single that scored Red Raiders freshman center fielder Brynn Egnarski, who doubled to left-center to lead off the inning.

Left-handed starting pitcher Lauren Dixon allowed four earned runs on seven hits for the Red Raiders. She struck out six.

Oshkosh North defeated Kenosha Bradford/Reuther 4-0 in the first semifinal Friday night.

After winning the WIAA Division 1 state softball championship last year, Sun Prairie lost the bulk of its lineup entering this season.

But the Cardinals were not deterred. And they showed that, returning to Goodman Diamond for this week’s state tournament.

“They are hungry,” Olson said after the Cardinals’ 4-1, 10-inning victory over Waukesha North in Thursday’s quarterfinals. “They want to continue what we built last year and finish strong this year.”

The Big Eight Conference runner-up Cardinals have finished strong, rallying to defeat Onalaska in a sectional semifinal, upending top-seeded and Big Eight champion Verona in the sectional title game, persevering through Thursday’s extra-inning game and Friday’s late-night showdown and now advancing to the state title game for the second consecutive year.

Undefeated and top-ranked Oshkosh North awaits, and Olson said the Cardinals have faced good pitching before.

“We have to get in there and we have to make contact with the ball, put the ball in play,” she said. “That is what is going to win games. Defensively, they are solid. But we are solid, too. … We are both here for a reason.”


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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.