CHIPPEWA FALLS – “I want redemption,” Chippewa Falls catcher Alisia Palms said.
Just making state was fun for the Cardinals’ underclassmen last season. It was the first time since 2015 that Chi-Hi made it to Madison and the first time making state for everyone but last year’s seniors. But with a year of state experience, the expectations have grown for this season’s Cardinals class.
“This year I’m ready for it,” Palms said. “I’ve already done it once and I want redemption so badly. We made it this far, we might as well not stop.”
The Cardinals were ousted just one game into the tournament last year at the hands of Burlington. It happened quickly too. Just an inning into the game, Chi-Hi found itself down 5-0.
Last year the stage seemed too big for starting pitcher Mallory Sterling. She allowed seven runs, five earned, over 3.1 innings pitched in her debut at state. But this year, things are different.
“I think last year I was a little nervous, I thought ‘oh my God, I have to do good,’” Sterling said. “But now I know if I do what I do, I’ll be fine.”
She’s also healthier than last year, after dealing with a displaced rib that inhibited her pitching late in last season.
“My arm went numb during the game because my nerves were all messed up,” she said. “This year it’s still sore, but it’s a lot better.”
Experience is an edge the Cardinals will have entering their opening game against Kenosha Bradford/Reuther on Thursday. The Red Devils’ last state appearance came in 2015, meaning none of their players will have any state experience.
It can be a daunting experience for newcomers. The stands tend to be more tightly packed and even pre-game routines are different, a change the Cardinals believe they are prepared for.
“I think everyone thinks they have to pick up their game to a new level,” Sterling said. “But it’s the same game and if you play your game, you’ll be just fine.”
Freshman second baseman Hannah Aldrich will be the lone newcomer to state in the starting lineup for the Cardinals.
She said she is trying to keep her expectations high, but she thinks she’ll be ready to go come gametime.
“You just have to keep calm and not worry too much,” Aldrich said. “If you know how to play than you know how to play.”
Her confidence has been buoyed by a spectacular play she made in Chi-Hi’s most recent game against Stevens Point. She saved a run-scoring single by making a diving stop on a hard-hit grounder to her right. Then, from her knees, she fired to first to record the out.
A year of experience and more playing time should help Nicole Crumbaker, a self-admitted “really nervous person.”
Crumbaker plays a unique role for the Cardinals. She’s the team’s starting third baseman and their backup pitcher.
Last season, she was called upon at state when Sterling was forced to exit the circle with her arm injury.
“I had been sitting in the dugout pretty much the whole time, which is still super nerve-wracking,” Crumbaker said. “Then when they called timeout, I was like ‘oh gosh.’ I was freaking out.”
This year though, she thinks already being in the game should help her if she’s called upon. It’s a transition she has made flawlessly a few times this season and typically in big moments when Sterling is either struggling or injured.
With state experience scattered across the diamond, the Cardinals should feel comfortable when they take the field Thursday morning at 8 a.m. There will still be nerves — head coach Kate Fjelstad said she is always nervous before game — but her squad should be ready.
“I’d like to show the state who we are on the big stage,” Fjelstad said. “This is a chance in a lifetime, there is no guarantee it’s going to happen again.”