Senior pitcher Katie Gardner is in the final week of her time at Warren East High School, but there is still plenty to do.

Gardner and the Lady Raiders are two wins away from returning to the state championship game and three wins away from a state title. Warren East begins its quest for a state title Friday at noon CDT in the quarterfinals of the KHSAA State Fast Pitch Softball Tournament at John Cropp Stadium at the University of Kentucky in Lexington.

The Tennessee-Martin signee is also a strong candidate to take home Miss Softball, which is awarded to the top senior in the state.

The state title and Miss Softball award are about the only things left to add to Gardner’s sparkling prep resume, which includes six career school records and 10 season school records. As Gardner’s time winds down with Warren East, she said it’s kind of surreal to think that this is her last week pitching for the Lady Raiders.

“I don’t want to think about it too much,” Gardner said. “I want to enjoy the journey.”

Gardner’s journey began long before she stepped in the circle the first time for Warren East. She said she can’t even remember the first time she picked up a bat, but while watching her sister play she knew that she loved softball.

“I knew that I loved it,” Gardner said. “I’ve just been working the past 12 years.”

Gardner tried basketball, but she said she knew it wasn’t for her. Softball – specifically pitching – gave her a chance to be in complete control of the game.

“Being a pitcher, there is all eyes on me,” Gardner said. “I think that is one of the aspects that I love about it. I can control what happens.”

Gardner first pitched for Warren East in 2014 as a seventh grader, but it was the next year when she arrived in the spotlight – emerging as the staff ace and helping the Lady Raiders advance to the state tournament. She picked up a pair of wins in the tournament, with Warren East finishing 2-2 in the double-elimination tournament.

“I think I really didn’t understand how big of a deal it was my eighth-grade year,” Gardner said. “Looking back, I don’t wish I would have done anything differently, but I wish I would have soaked it in more.”

Her appreciation for the state tournament grew the next two years. Warren East lost in the District 14 Tournament her freshman year and was one out away from getting back to the state tournament her sophomore year before South Warren rallied to win the Region 4 championship.

Gardner said losing that game in 2017 was one of the toughest moments of her prep career.

“I really wanted it for those seniors,” she said. “I knew they wanted it really badly. It was sad the way it ended.”

It served as motivation, with Gardner’s junior year getting off to a strong start before a thumb injury sidelined her for weeks. While it was difficult to watch from the sidelines, Gardner said it also proved to be a blessing – with then eighth-grader Emma Markham stepping in and gaining valuable time in the circle.

“It was very difficult,” Gardner said. “I think I cried at some of the games because I wasn’t out there playing, but I loved it for my teammates. I was always cheering them on while they were playing. I think it gave us a better look at having Emma pitch instead of me. When I came back I knew I could fall back on her to have my back.”

Gardner came back stronger than ever and the Lady Raiders rode her return all the way to a runner-up finish in the state tournament. Again Gardner had motivation.

Her senior season has been perhaps her best yet. She enters Friday’s game 30-1 with 321 strikeouts in 171 1/3 innings. She is also hitting .383 with nine homers – three in the last two games.

“She has really turned it up a notch the last couple of weeks,” Warren East coach Philip McKinney said. “Not only in the circle, but at the plate as well. What she has done the last few weeks has been unreal.”

Her success has allowed her to cement her name throughout Warren East’s record books. Among Gardner’s school records are career wins (108), strikeouts (1,211), shutouts (47), no-hitters (nine) and perfect games (four).

She’s also enjoyed success at the plate with 18 career homers, fourth most in Warren East history.

Gardner said she draws from her experience as a hitter when she is pitching and her experience as a pitcher when she is batting.

“I use it both ways,” Gardner said. “I use it against batters. I use it to help me hitting. I think it has been a big part of my success.”

McKinney said Gardner’s success speaks for itself, adding he thinks she has done enough to win Miss Softball. Voting has been completed, with the winner announced Sunday.

“I will be very disappointed if she doesn’t win Miss Softball,” McKinney said. “I know whoever does win it, they will definitely be deserving, but Katie has done everything and then some to win Miss Softball this year. She has done it in the circle. She has done it at the plate. She’s been the workhorse. She has most definitely done everything and I hope she gets enough votes.”

While the award would be an honor, Gardner said she would trade Miss Softball for a state championship in a heartbeat. She will get her chance to complete that goal this weekend.

“Coming up one game short was really heartbreaking,” Gardner said. “Hopefully this year we will make it back to that point and come out with a better outcome.”{&end}

– Follow prep sports reporter Micheal Compton on Twitter @mcompton428 or visit bgdailynews.com.

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Sports Writer. Cover prep sports, Hot Rods baseball, Titans football, and is the Daily News staff film critic.

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