Walking in a Willmar wonderland
Cold temperatures. Bitter winds. Snowstorms and cars in ditches. Unpleasant trips to the gas station where your hand feels like it's going to freeze in the five seconds while you swipe your credit card.
Minnesota winters, generally speaking, are vexatious obligations endured rather than enjoyed.
But for those in Willmar, this time of the year has never been more fun.
Four Willmar High School athletic teams—gymnastics, wrestling and girls and boys basketball—all currently sit among the top-five ranked teams in Minnesota, making this perhaps the greatest winter athletic season the city has ever seen.
At No. 2 in Class A, the gymnastics team currently stakes a claim to bragging rights as the highest-ranked team at 2701 30th Street Northeast, with No. 3 girls basketball and both boys basketball and wrestling at No. 5 not all that far behind.
If you're looking for a more well-rounded athletic program in the state this winter than that of the Cardinals, then, well, good luck with that. Combined, the four teams have lost just twice this year, with gymnastics and boys basketball still undefeated past the halfway point of their respective seasons.
Willmar athletic director Ryan Blahosky's advice: Soak it all in.
"We'll see what happens, but it's a good start to kind of a special winter here in Willmar," Blahosky said. "I don't know what the record is for state appearances in a season, but I think we're going to be having one of the best winters Willmar's ever had."
The story of a winter that won't soon be forgotten in Willmar is one in which all the pieces of the puzzle are coming together, culminating in a vivid picture of the state's premier winter athletic department.
The Cardinals' story is one of talented athletes, dedicated coaches, a supportive community and, of course, winning.
Lots of winning.
Undefeated and unexpected
If there was a party-crasher out of the four ranked Cardinals teams, it would be Willmar boys basketball, which was expected to be improved this season—but not this much improved. Just ask head coach Matt Williams.
"You knew with the wrestling team, gymnastics, girls basketball, that those programs have been building to this point," Williams said. "Those programs are incredible. We're probably the surprise group out of the four."
The Cardinals had gone a combined 20-61 since the current group of Willmar seniors were freshmen in 2014-15. In Williams' first two years at the helm, beginning the following season, his record was just 17-37.
"Two years ago, my first year as coach, we got blown out of a lot of games," he said.
That memory serves correctly. The Cardinals lost 13 of 16 games in Central Lakes Conference play, with 12 of those losses coming by double digits and an average losing margin of 17.9 points.
"The cupboard was pretty empty for a couple years there," Blahosky said.
Not all was bleak, however.
As the 2014-15 Cardinals squad scuffled to a 3-24 record, they nominated just one player for Tribune All-Area honors—a freshman guard who averaged 13.3 points per game.
His name was Noah Slagter.
Fast forward three years, and that wide-eyed, skinny, 5-foot-10 freshman is now Willmar's all-time leading scorer and a Mr. Basketball candidate.
"Having the all-time leading scorer in school history on your team is nice," Blahosky said with a chuckle. "I'm thankful for him to be able to have this year because he's played through some long seasons."
Even during a 7-20 campaign when Slagter was a sophomore, help was on the way. Noah Getz, Cameron Murphy and Donald Jurek, all current members of the Cardinals senior class, saw varsity playing time as sophomores that year. The coaching staff also opted to keep the entirety of a talented ninth-grade group on the freshman team rather than bumping them up to the varsity or JV squads. The result: a 34-0 record as current key members of the varsity team in Drey Dirksen, Ty Roelofs, Ryan Slette and Jake Evans gelled together as a unit.
"At that point, we knew we had a good couple of groups," Williams said.
Returning nearly all of its rotation players from last year's 10-17 team, the Cardinals were expected to be better this winter. But 15-0 and a No. 5 Class AAA ranking in the Follow the Rock media/coaches poll?
"I knew we would be better, but I wouldn't have predicted 15-0 at this point," Williams said. "I thought we'd be competitive in every game we played, but to be 15-0 is a mixture of skill, preparation and maybe a little luck mixed in, too."
The wins aren't the only reason that this year's Willmar squad makes the teams of the last few years almost unrecognizable.
The Cardinals underwent a complete transformation in their offensive scheme to better suit their personnel.
In the past, Willmar would bring the ball slowly up the court, taking its time in the half-court and looking for the best available shot. Now, after every missed shot by an opponent, the Cardinals are helter-skelter in pushing the pace.
As a result, points and possessions are up.
"Matt changed his philosophy this year as a coaching staff, and that's what you want your coaches to do," Blahosky said. "You can't just teach what you know; you need to be able to adapt to what your kids can bring to the table.
"This year, they want to get 70 possessions, 80 possessions per game. We're averaging close to 80 points a game. The change there is that the talent is there, the ability for the kids is there."
It's a scheme that fits like a glove on these Cardinals, a group that cycles through a seemingly endless bevy of athletic 6-foot-2 Kandiyohians.
Is the program's second trip to state since 1988 in the Cards? Only time will tell.
Dust-ing the competition
The CLC and Section 5AAA have officially been put on notice: Dustin Carlson is building up quite the program in Willmar.
The Cardinals girls basketball team followed up a late-season surge and a state tournament appearance last season in grand fashion by opening the 2017-18 campaign with 15 straight wins.
Physical and scrappy, the Cardinals' identity mirrors that of their coach. They're a deep group that can make life miserable for an opponent with a disciplined, stingy defense.
And they could be good for a long time.
"With Dustin and the girls program, what they've got going on is really impressive and it doesn't look like it's going to stop any time soon," Williams said. "That's exactly what we want to become like from a basketball standpoint."
The Cardinals have blossomed into a top-tier program over the second half of Carlson's six-year tenure as head coach. After going 38-45 over Carlson's first three years as the successor to Hall of Fame coach Brad Atchison starting in 2012, Willmar is 53-22 since the outset of the 2015-16 season.
"A big part of having this success is the consistency of the coaches year-after-year," Blahosky said. "Dusty has seen this whole group through, so have all of the other coaches. They built the lower levels, they worked with the lower-level coaches and those kids came in more prepared."
The first youth squads that Carlson worked with after becoming head coach was the then-sixth and seventh grade teams that now form the upperclassmen on the 15-1 Cardinals. That's a lot of time for seniors like Cayle Hovland and Jordyn Swoboda to learn the offensive schemes and defensive principles.
"It's been really fun to be a part of this group of juniors and seniors since sixth or seventh grade when they started," Carlson said. "I felt that we've had a good connections with these kids coming in throughout the program."
Coming off a season in which they won 11 of their last 12 games to reach the state tournament and reloaded with plenty of talent, Carlson and his staff didn't need to make nearly the same amount of changes as Williams and the boys did.
If you're looking for a team having fun, any of the big Willmar Four would fit the bill, but perhaps none more than girls hoops.
This year, the Cardinals have implemented more non-basketball activities and contests into their practices to break up the long season. They turn bus breakdowns on the freeway just outside Fergus Falls into team concerts. They printed out t-shirts with Carlson's senior picture on them between the words 'Straight cash homie.'
"I think what we have right now around all sports is that kids like being around each other," Carlson said. "Team-based success is so important to these girls. We've had a winning tradition at Willmar and that's starting to resurface. It's our job to uphold that tradition, just like wrestling and gymnastics have been doing."
For a few years now, the monkey on the back of Willmar gymnastics was a group of purple-clad Dutchmen located one hour north.
Annually, the Cardinals were one of the state's top-ranked teams in Class A; annually, Melrose was the pesky thorn in their side in Section 6A.
The Dutchmen gymnastics team has become one of the most successful programs in Minnesota, earning a state tournament berth in each of the last 10, and 26 of the past 28, seasons.
Jodi Mottinger's Cardinals would like to have a word about that, though.
"We've been state-ranked for the past five years or so and I think in the top three most years, but we just couldn't get past Melrose," Mottinger, Willmar's head coach, said. "So we've been successful, but unless you get out of your section, nobody notices."
A deep team combined with a down year from Melrose has made for a perfect combination for the second-ranked Cardinals.
Well, a near-perfect combination.
Two days after Willmar registered its highest score of the season at 147.0 on Jan. 16, the team's top all-around gymnast Erica Schramm suffered a C7 vertebra fracture during practice last Thursday while doing a back handspring on beam.
"It's a skill she's done tons of times over the years and she just lost her balance a little bit and came down and landed on her head," Mottinger said. "She's done for the season. It's been a tough couple of days at practice for the girls. There have been a lot of tears shed."
Schramm placed 16th in the all-around competition at state last year as a sophomore, and had already bested her state score by over 0.5 points early in the season.
The Cardinals' depth is now more important than ever.
"Our depth is a great problem to have, but it's been hard to make some of those decisions as a coach as to who competes," Mottinger said. "So many girls are so close in their scores that it's tough, but now having those girls that can step up and compete for us will be big."
With an average score of 146.492, the Cardinals are still more than six points clear of the Dutchmen, who at No. 10 are the next-highest ranked team in the section. That cushion, along with the team's depth, should still make Willmar the favorites to advance to state for just the third time in school history.
A year like this one has been a while in the making for the Cardinals.
Between the Willmar Wings club team and the city rec program, there are two avenues through which young athletes can hone their skills.
With large numbers of girls coming out for the sport through those programs, the Cardinals hope to not go anywhere anytime soon.
Key varsity competitors Bronwyn Tollefson, Olivia Welsh and Jolissa Lara all graduate this summer, but Willmar will once again reload next year with Schramm, Tayva Carruthers, Abigail Coquyt, Lydia Morrell, Presleigh Schrupp, Kirah Kessler-Gross and more all back for another run.
"It's a collection of really good athletes, and they've been good now for five years in a row, so it's not just one run of a group of three girls coming through," Blahosky said. "They're reloading every year. That's a true testament to the youth programs like at Wings."
A new gym at the high school devoted solely to gymnastics has also been a benefit to the flying Cards, showcasing the benefit of the community's financial support.
"With all the extra equipment and not having to take it down every day and put it back up, it's a big help," Mottinger said. "We used to have just one set of bars to rotate through, so that was our weakest event. And with the new pit, you have soft landing spot on vault so you can practice tougher skills and it's easier on your joints."
Blueprint for success
Some day, Willmar wrestling head coach Ed Oehlers will have to write a book.
With an attention to detail and coaching philosophy thorough enough for paperback, it's no surprise that the Cardinals grapplers are among the most consistently-successful programs in the state.
Having logged just two team state tournament appearances before Oehlers joined as an assistant in 2007, No. 5 Willmar is now staring down its seventh consecutive team state tournament appearance later this year.
"It's been quite the year for them for six years now, really," Blahosky said. "Again, there's consistency there. That machine just keeps churning, and hopefully it keeps churning out good kids."
From goal-setting, to consistency in coaching, to a dedication to outworking everyone else, to a winning tradition, Willmar wrestling has a firm set of core values that have helped create a dominant program.
"We've implement a lot of beliefs and try to stick to our values, our goals and things like that and reinforce those," Oehlers said. "The kids have bought into our program and that's all helped us be blessed to be as successful as we have been."
Long gone are the days when Oehlers first joined the staff and the Cardinals struggled to even win a dual meet, but those times helped shape the very things that make Willmar successful now.
"It was a struggle," Oehlers said. "We put a lot of emphasis on working hard and working smart and efficiently. As a program, we tried to outwork our opponents. Now, we're stronger mentally and, hopefully, physically than anyone we'll face on the mat."
In a Belichickian-like way, Willmar wrestling is here to stay, but this year's group might have a chance to do the most damage of any team yet.
Between the Cardinals' own version of the gauntlet of death in Israel Navarro and the undefeated Carlsons, Clay and Cael, other top-tier wrestlers like Lincoln Shinn, Caden Carlson and Andrew Reigstad and talent at the remaining weight classes, Oehlers calls this year's team a "special group."
It all starts with the culture that surrounds Willmar wrestling from a young age.
"I try to be very involved with the youth," Oehlers said. "I'm involved K-through-12, from the boosters to getting coaches involved. I have a staff I trust at the youth level, so if I can't make every practice I can feel comfortable that they're following our program and them bringing in their own knowledge from their experience."
The dedication shown from the likes of Navarro, Shinn, the Carlsons and others is palpable with the program's younger wrestlers and helps keep the Cardinals atop their competition.
"It comes with the youth program and getting numbers involved," Blahosky said. "When you've got the young kids in wrestling and staying with it, it's so helpful. We've had a good youth program throughout the years, so that just keeps feeding up. Our wrestling program has done a really good job of tapping into the Hispanic community and keeping those kids involved."
From top-to-bottom, it's a recipe for success for Willmar wrestling.
And it would all make for quite the book.