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Chi-Hi softball vs Kenosha Bradford/Reuther Division 1 state quarterfinals 6-6-19

Cali Goulet (6) and Bayleigh Dresel (8) high five after Goulet came in to pinch run for Dresel in Thursday's game against Kenosha Bradford/Reuther in Madison.

MADISON — Few softball teams show up on the first day of practice looking like prime contenders.

The old sports cliche of ‘wanting to peak at the right time’ is accurate, but also needs sustained improvement throughout a campaign. A team won’t simply go from a bottom dweller to contender just because of the time of the year.

Chi-Hi was never a bottom dweller, but the statement can and should be made the Cardinals improved from the beginning of the season as much as any of the 20 teams in action at this weekend’s WIAA State Softball Tournament.

Heck, you could make the case they’ve improved as much as any team since the start of the playoffs.

Chi-Hi entered the season with a large graduated class of seniors to replace, veterans that held down the top four spots in the lineup and key spots on defense. No matter how prolific a team’s rightfully earned reputation is, new faces cannot simply be slid into the lineup without any sort of hiccup.

The Cardinals were no different as the team endured an up-and-down regular season capped by dropping both games of a doubleheader at Hudson on May 13, two defeats that ended Chi-Hi’s Big Rivers Conference championship streak at 10 years in a row. The team entered the postseason as a No. 7 seed, a reflection of its inconsistent regular season and had only one game at Casper Park in the playoffs. But even while the results weren’t necessarily there in the regular season, the team kept working and improving. Those results started to show in the playoffs as the team went on the road with victories at Superior and Marshfield before blanking Stevens Point in the sectional finals at D.C. Everest.

The team improved in all facets, but perhaps no much moreso than on defense. A regular season spent tinkering with the personnel and type of play came to a head in that doubleheader with the Raiders where Chi-Hi committed five errors in the two games. So the Cardinals made several tweaks to the defense entering the postseason, moves that even some players admitted they weren’t sure of how they would work out.

But the Cardinals rose to the occasion and were steady on defense the rest of the way.

“We struggled at the beginning of the season,” Chi-Hi senior Abby Staves said of the defense. “We didn’t know where people were going to be playing and people got moved around and they got it figured out. We started really coming together as a defense then the bats just came along with it.”

The team also showed resiliency. Ask players like Nicole Crumbaker, Emme Bergh, Staves and Mallory Sterling about it as they were just a few of the Cardinals to step up with big plays in key situations.

Crumbaker tossed 3.1 scoreless innings in relief of Sterling in the team’s sectional semifinal win at Marshfield on May 28. Bergh, a player moved from the starting lineup after the last round of position changes prior to the playoffs, made the most of her big chance with a two-run single against the Tigers to put the Cards in front 4-3 in the top of the seventh inning.

Staves emerged as a leader for the Cardinals and it was her two-run home run that opened the scoring in the 3-0 win over SPASH. Sterling bounced back from her struggles at Marshfield to shut out the Panthers, working out of some early trouble to toss a complete-game six-hitter to help send the Cardinals to state for a 13th time.

That resiliency even popped up in Thursday’s 5-3 defeat to Kenosha Bradford/Reuther. The Red Devils tacked on two runs in the top of the seventh on back-to-back home runs, presumably taking the wind out of the Cardinals’ sails with one set of at-bats to go.

But Chi-Hi dug in and offered a stiff counterpunch, scoring one run and bringing the go-ahead run to the plate before the Red Devils secured the win.

The Chi-Hi program has become synonymous with producing winners and this year’s team is a strong example of that.

“Expectations are what they are at the beginning,” Chi-Hi coach Kate Fjelstad said. “I don’t know that our expectations were really high from everybody else (outside of the team). Not us. The girls had common goals that we’ve always had every year. They fought and it was a great season until the end.”

A strong group of seniors with Staves, Sterling, Bayleigh Dresel, Cali Goulet and Maddie Adrian took over the lead for the program and helped get the team to Madison for the second straight year.

“I’m going to take away just having some great coaches, just some bonds I’ve created with the girls over the season it’s just been phenomenal,” Staves said of what she’ll remember most about this year’s team. “Just being able to get my team back to state the second year in a row, it’s really exciting.”

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