It may be Willmar's first trip to a state soccer tournament, but the surroundings are familiar.
The Cardinal boys have played one or more matches each season at Husky Stadium on the St. Cloud State University campus.
The artificial grass and the 80-yard width usually means a quicker pace.
The Cardinals (14-8) will be the underdog today when they face the Blake Bears (15-2-2) at 5:30 p.m.
The Blake School in Edina spilled St. Thomas Academy 2-1 for the Section 3A crown. The Bears forced overtime by scoring a late penalty kick, then won in a shootout after a scoreless overtime.
"This will be the best defensive team we've faced," said Willmar coach Richard Courtney. "Our best chance is for us to play superior defense, Blake won't beat themselves. We'll have to make a great shot on a great play."
The Blake School of Edina went 8-1-1 to win the Tri-Metro Conference, a confederation of 10 private schools and one public (Brooklyn Center).
The Bears, ranked No. 4 in Class A, and seeded No. 2 in the tournament, have allowed only seven goals in 19 games.
Willmar is unranked and one of four unseeded teams in the final eight.
That's fine with Courtney.
"The pressure's on Blake," he said. "We're not supposed to be here."
Blake is well-skilled, says Courtney. They also have three four-year starters. Senior captain and midfielder Austin Dresser made the state all-tournament team in 2007 when Blake's only loss came in the state championship match with the Marshall School of Duluth.
Bears goalie Tips Jackley and defender Michael Ankeny are All-Staters.
The Cardinals may surprise the Bears, though there is small room for error. The Willmar schedule is tougher than it may appear. Two of the Cardinals' eight losses were to St. Cloud Tech - one at Husky Stadium. The Tigers beat Elk River 1-0 to reach the Class AA final eight for the first time.
Willmar, seeded fifth in Section 2A, beat Mankato East 1-0 to gain the section final, where it beat Southwest Minnesota Christian by the same score.
It may mean the Cardinals will need another shutout to advance to the Metrodome.
Courtney sees play at midfield and back as the key: "We need to excel in the middle of the field with our sweeper Badal Ali, stopper Josh Wright, goalie Steve Kluver and our sophomores Landon Peterson and Liam Johnston."
The road to Northfield goes through Hazeltine.
The site of some of the world's most important golf tournaments (U.S. Opens, PGA championship) offers up its par-3 layout to 15 schools running for medals in the Section 2AA cross-country races today in Chaska.
Willmar's Mahad Hassan will be a slight favorite in the boys' race. He'll have to beat Buffalo's Zach Mellon, the all-time state-meet record holder in the 800-meter run.
He's also the last harrier to beat Hassan this fall. That happened on Sept. 11 at Marion Park by Hutchinson when Mellon pulled away from Hassan in the closing 1,000 meters to win by five seconds.
Since then, Hassan has won five straight races, including large invites at Apple Valley and Alexandria. Mellon, ranked No. 2, won the huge Griak Invite at the University of Minnesota. Hassan was fourth at the 2007 state meet, behind three seniors.
The match-up should be the highlight of the meet, believes Willmar coach Jerry Popp.
Chaska is seen as the boys favorite. Willmar has a "solid chance" to finish No. 2 which would also send the Cardinals on to St. Olaf College on Nov. 1.
Newcomer Sadam Abdi, a junior who ran in the Maine state meet a year ago, has become a reliable No. 2 runner. He could finish in the top 5.
Freshmen Mowlid Mohammed and Alex Johannes and eighth grader Abdullahi Mohamud will all need to run big races to get Willmar near the top. No. 3 runner junior Matt Weitzel (knee) and Danny Voss (shin splints) are both ready to compete again.
The girls team should run middle-of-the-pack. Junior Jayne Cole could qualify for her first state meet with an exceptional run. Juniors Emily Ellingson, Erin Sheehan, seventh grader Paige Kester and freshman Marin Hanson will also run. The last two spots will come from a pool that contains seventh grader Tara Rudie, eighth grader Cassandra Johnson and seniors Ashley Bach and Gabi Engelkes.
Willmar would like to at least equal its seventh place finish of a year ago in a field that the Willmar coaches consider tougher than in 2007.
For the first time, the section will also run a JV division.