MOUND -- All season, Willmar has outmuscled, or at least outwrestled, foes at the lower weights to grasp large leads.
At best, the upper weights were a stalemate. Some nights, opponents caught and passed the Cardinals down the stretch.
This time, when it counted most, the big boys saved the day.
With Willmar and Wayzata tied 23-all with four matches left, the Cardinals Chad Milhausen, Shawn Johnson and Martin Cabrera each won by decision to put Willmar over the top in the Section 6AAA championship match.
The Cardinals' heavyweight, Cass Herzog, ended the day at Mound-Westonka High School with a pin in the first minute for a 38-23 final.
The top-seeded Cardinals had stamped their passport to the state tournament, which runs March 1-3 at the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul, for the third time; other trips were in 1998 and 2005.
Seeding (top 4) and a random draw determine first-round pairings. Willmar is the lone area team and the first in two years to reach the 3-class state event.
On Saturday, Willmar, the No. 1 seed, was favored but still had to perform up to expectations.
"We just talked about keeping our focus, know the match situation while realizing what you needed to do," said co-head coach Ed Oehlers.
Last year Willmar had lost out by criteria (most wins) in the Section 8AAA championship match to Bemidji.
This year's team was without state champ Nathan Swoyer (now a junior-high coach) but overall is a more balanced team.
And Willmar went into the 9-team section day on four mats without their top wrestler and co-captain Alex Johannes (147 wins, 2 state trips). The senior 132-pounder sustained a knee injury in practice last Tuesday, but he hopes to be ready for 6AAA individuals this Friday-Saturday at Hopkins High.
Oehlers and co-coach Justin Brown were able to shuffle Travis Deegan and Zach Leuders to cover up for the absence. Leuders weighed in at 126 and Deegan at 132.
"I commend both of them," said Oehlers. "That allowed us to move them up or down and to also move Colten Carlson and Seth Pollock around if we needed to."
The Cardinals will take a 19-5 record to state. Ranked outside the top 12 by the Guillotine, it's unlikely Willmar would get a top 4 seed.
Willmar 56, Buffalo 15
Leadoff Logan Walkow's started Willmar's day with a first-period pin, the first of the eight-grader's 3 wins for the day. Estevan Navarro and Shawn Johnson would also go 3-0 in contested matches.
The Cardinals fully expected to win this meeting but the intensity displayed through the weight classes indicated the top seed was taking little for granted.
"The way we wrestled (against the Bison) set the tone for the day," said Oehlers.
106: Lgan Walkow, W, pin Josh Skarin 1:31
113: Nate Mittag, W, pin Wyatt Jacobson-Hanson 1:33
120: Austin Miley, W, dec Cedric Jimenez 8-4x
126: Estevan Navarro, W, dec Luke Mock 7-1
132: Zach Lueders, W, mj Andy Mock 13-0
138: Travis Deegan, W, mj Ian Scherber 11-3
145: Colten Carlson, W, won, forfeit
152: Seth Pollock, W, won, forfeit
160: Tanner Maus, B, pin Darious O'Neil 1:23
170: Jon Wirkkala, B, dec Chad Milhausen 12-11
182: Shawn Johnson, W, pin Jason Forphal :39
195: Martin Cabrera, W, won, forfeit
220: Adam Treptau, B, pin Matt Hennes 2:56
285: double forfeit
Willmar 57, Mound-Westonka 15
These teams had not met. On paper, the host Whitehawks looked capable of making it a competitive match.
But it turned into a blowout when Willmar took the first 7 matches and finished 11 of 14 overall. Each win came with bonus points.
The Cardinals were in a section final for a second straight year.
106: Logan Walkow, W, mj Ryan Reid 13-4
113: Nate Mittag, W, mj Sam Bennyhoff 14-6
120: Austin Miley, W, pin Cole Peterson 2:28
126: Estevan Navarro, mj Adrian Wear 15-7
132: Zach Lueders, W, mj Kwin Retterath 14-5
138: Colten Carlson, W, tf Drake Heath 19-4
145: Seth Pollock, W, pin Ben Rogers 5:00
152: Ty Hebig, M, pin Darius O'Neil :41
160: August Hahn, W, pin Ryder Schmidt 3:47
170: Ty Ihli, M, pin Vaughn Johnson 4:59
182: Bryan Tierney, M, dec Chad Milhausen 9-2
195: Shawn Johnson, W, pin Travis Peterson 3:35
220: Martin Cabrera, W, pin Erik Hannigan 2:42
285: Cass Herzog, W, won, forfeit
Willmar 38, Wayzata 23
The Cardinals had conquered the Wayzata in Cold Spring 43-19 on Jan . 9. But Johannes was in the line-up then and concern increased when Nate Miley at 113 lost by major decision to a wrestler he'd beat the week before. Logan Walkow at 106 and Estevan Navarro at 126 each won a one-point decisions so that the Cardinals trailed only 7-6 after four weights.
Lueders had filled the gap admirable created by the injury with two wins earlier in the day. But in the second period against the Trojans' Collin Sohn, he suffered a painful shoulder separation in the second period and had to default. Weston Droegenmueller (35-3) pinned Deegan putting the Trojans up 19-6.
Eighth-grader Carlson and Pollock, a senior, provided falls to close to 19-17; Augustine Hahn, the freshman, put Willmar in front for the first time since Walkow's leadoff win with a pin in 3:04.
Freshman Vaughn Johnson (1-13) lost out to Chris Reding (29-9) and the match was tied 23-all with four weights left.
That brought up Chad Milhausen for Willmar (19-17), 0-2 on the day losing 12-11and and 9-2 decisions. His opponent Robert Schulke was also around .500. It was 5-5 after one period and 8-6 Milhausen after two. The Willmar fans, outnumbering the Wayzata turnout, chanted "Let's go Chad! Let's go Chad!"
Schulke's escape made it 8-7 but Milhausen got a takedown to win 10-7 for a 26-23 lead going into the 195 weight class.
Willmar senior Shawn Johnson (19-17) had two pins already -- one at 182 pounds -- and seemed the favorite against Axel Torneroos, a heavier wrestler who can also go at 220. Johnson never trailed but had to work hard in what seemed a battle of willpower for a 4-3 win and a 29-23 Willmar lead.
"I put all I had into the match," said Johnson. "I got very tired against a bigger guy."
Martin Cabrera, who joined the team late, had a forfeit and a pin in the early matches to bring his record to 10-2. The Cardinal senior led 2-0 after one and 4-1 after two; an escape and a third takedown made the final 7-2.
The decision clinched the championship.
"I joined the team late because I was working," said Cabrera. "I'm so thankful I got to be a part of the team and help us win."
There was still more to cheer about when heavyweight Cass Herzog made short work of his foe. Herzog's grand total of mat time Saturday after a double forfeit and a forfeit win was 48 seconds.
But the brawny junior experience the joy of coming off the mat and joining his jubilant teammates in a roar of victory.
106: Logan Walkow, Wi, dec Evan Kluck 8-7
113: Nick O'Brien, Wz, mj Nate Mittag 15-5
120: Jake Stufft, Wz, dec Austin Miley 9-7
126: Estevan Navarro, Wi, dec Aaron Cote 9-8
132: Collin Sohn, Wz, inj default Zach Leuders
138: Wes Droegenmueller, Wz, pin Travis Deegan 1:21
145: Colt Carlson, Wi, pin Blake Hamlin 4:11
152: Seth Pollock, Wi, tf Parker Moen 4:36
160: August Hahn, Wi, pin Jordan Porteous 3:04
170: Chris Reding, Wz, mj Vaughn Johnson 14-5
182: Chad Milhuasen, Wi, dec Robert Schulke 10-7
195: Shawn Johnson, Wi, dec Eli Hollins 4-3
220: Martin Cabrera, Wi, dec Axel Torneroos 7-2
285: Cass Herzog, Wi, pin Harrison Wright :48
Class AAA section champs: 1. Hastings 2. Prior Lake 3. Apple Valley 4. White Bear Lake 5. Champlin Park 6. Willmar 7. St. Michael-Albertville 8. Little Falls