MADISON — When Hailey Zurakowski steps into the batter’s box to lead off Thorp’s opening game of the WIAA state softball tournament, she’ll see a familiar face staring in.

The Cardinals open their state tournament where last year’s came to a close: facing Horicon’s star pitcher Allison Tillema.

Tillema one-hit Thorp in last year’s Division 4 State finals en route to an 11-0 drubbing of the Cardinals. The game came just one day after Tillema threw a no-hitter in her opening game of the tournament against Pacelli.

Cardinals head coach Kurt Rhyner knows beating Tillema isn’t going to be an easy task, but Thorp isn’t ready to fold to Division 4’s top seeded Horicon. Instead, Rhyner’s squad has spent much of this week preparing for Tillema.

“She throws the ball hard, she throws the ball in on your hands, and she likes to throw a fantastic rise ball,” Rhyner said.

So Rhyner stepped into the circle this week to do his best impression of the junior star.

“Mr. Rhyner has been throwing us fast, hard balls to simulate how she’s going to be in a game,” Kaitlyn Tyznik said.

He stands a little closer to the plate, because his arm can’t quite compete with Tillema’s and he throws from an angle in order to replicate her inside pitches.

But it’s not just Tillema he has his team preparing for. Thorp’s tournament opens at 8 a.m. and Rhyner wants his squad to be alert and ready from the opening pitch. So while most of Thorp is still asleep, Rhyner has had his girls on the diamond at 6:00 a.m. to get their body clocks adjusted to their game time.

“It’s early, but you’ve got to do what you’ve got to do to get your body ready to perform that early,” Tyznik said.

It’s forced Tyznik, a recently-graduated senior, to wake up four hours before she normally does. But she said she understands why the Cardinals are doing it and Rhyner said the early mornings have helped.

“The first day I was like ‘holy cow,’ I don’t know how some of these girls function in the morning,” Rhyner said. “It didn’t go well, but (Wednesday) was so much better.”

Rhyner also believes the infield is different in Madison. He has his girls preparing with different balls that skip quicker along their infield in order to replicate the speed of Goodman Diamond.

Tyznik, Thorp’s starting pitcher, has a tough task ahead of her. She knows runs will be at a premium for the Cardinals, meaning she has to be at the top of her game if Thorp is going to pull off the upset.

“I perform better under pressure,” Tyznik said. “I’ve always been like that.”

She showed that poise two games ago, against Glenwood City, when twice she pitched out of bases-loaded jams with fewer than two outs without allowing a run.

Her mental fortitude has improved immensely this year, according to Rhyner.

“There were all kinds of moments where she showed her mental toughness,” Rhyner said “We played Altoona this year and we had some mistakes, and she responded outstandingly. Every time she gets in those situations, she’s demonstrated mental toughness.”

Beating Horicon isn’t going to be easy. The Marshladies have gone 23-1 this year, but Tyznik said if the Cardinals play “Cardinals softball” they’ll be just fine.