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Sun Prairie co-op's Colleen Milligan brings the puck up the ice against D.C. Everest Co-op during last season's WIAA state semifinals.

Behind the leadership and play of Colleen Milligan, the Sun Prairie co-op girls hockey team has earned a return trip to the WIAA state tournament.

The co-op, known as the Cap City Cougars, has reeled off seven consecutive victories to book its state berth.

The Cap City Cougars (20-6-1) will take on the Fond du Lac/Beaver Dam Warbirds (19-8) at 12:15 p.m. Friday in a semifinal at the Dane County Coliseum.

The winner will advance to Saturday’s noon championship game against either the Eau Claire North co-op (24-3-0) or the Schofield D.C. Everest co-op (19-8-0).

Milligan scored a short-handed goal and assisted on two more scores as the Cougars raced out to a 3-0 lead in Saturday’s sectional final against the Badger Conference champions, the Beloit Memorial co-op (Rock County Fury), at Madison Ice Arena. The Cougars had to withstand two late goals to pull out a 3-2 victory.

Milligan, a right-handed senior from Madison East, possesses the intangibles to lead the team in more than one way.

“She’s incredibly selfless. If she has the puck and (someone else has) a better opportunity to score, there is never a thought in her mind that she should shoot it herself,” third-year Cougars coach Jeff Thornton said.

Milligan’s team-first mentality and the team’s chemistry on the ice will be crucial components as the co-op shoots for a trip to the state title game after last year’s 1-0 semifinal loss to the eventual champion D.C. Everest co-op (Central Wisconsin Storm).

“If we are all playing as a family and playing for each other, we play our best hockey. That’s been clicking as the season progresses,” said Milligan, a team captain.

Milligan has scored six of her 13 goals in the past five games and has recorded 28 assists. These numbers helped the Cougars earn the No. 8 ranking in the poll and a runner-up finish in the Badger Conference behind the fifth-ranked Rock County Fury.

As a senior with three years of experience with the Madison Capitols, Milligan is an ideal mentor for younger teammates. A bond with freshman linemate Amanda Bauer sticks out.

“Colleen and Amanda just seemed to really understand each other and anticipate where the puck is going to go. That is something you really can’t coach,” Thornton said.

Contrasting styles in play have allowed for the two forwards to complement one another and mesh on the ice.

“Colleen’s always looking to pass and I’m looking to shoot, which is really good for scoring,” Bauer said.

In its biggest game of the year — and a rematch with the Warbirds, who beat the Cougars 5-4 in the season opener on Nov. 25 — the Cougars will need to rely on Milligan’s leadership and knack for finding the puck.

“She’s by far one of our hardest workers. She’s relentless and never quits,” Thornton said. “She’s always around the puck and the puck seems to find her as the game gets tight. Our team looks to her to be one of our leaders.”

Despite this team being comprised of members from five area schools— Sun Prairie, DeForest, Madison East, Madison La Follette and Waunakee — camaraderie and friendships have been forged, on and off the ice.

“We’ve been hanging out a lot outside of hockey this year. I think it’s super cool having people from different schools on the team,” Milligan said.

And it has shown on the ice.

“We’ve started to play our brand of hockey, which is kind of a gritty style, defensive-minded but aggressive,” Thornton said. “We’ve started to do the things that make us successful a little more consistently now.”