March frenzy for Cardinals
For young athletes, postseason is the time to shine. Willmar has 10 boys going to state in swimming and diving and five to state in wrestling. And tonight, the boys hockey team plays for what would be the school's first state visit since Harry S Truman was in the White House.
In state waters
It's a record nine swimmers off to the University of Minnesota Aquatics Center. Plus, Bennett Woltjer dives in the preliminaries today, trying to improve on a 15th-place finish a year ago.
Kyle Rozendaal medaled in the backstroke last year. His seed time of 55.75 is fourth best. The senior has two races left to displace Chad Bloom on the school record board, whose 55.1 has stood for 20 seasons.
The Cardinals advanced all three relays to state. The medley quartet with Rozendaal, Josh Kelly, Ben Fuglestad and Mason Kluver has the best chance of qualifying on Friday for Saturday's championship heat. Michael McLain shoots for the top eight in the 200 freestyle.
Coach Carl Shuldes notes that fewer swimmers achieved the state qualifying standard, reducing the number of entrants in most events. Still, sophomore A.J. Derouin, 17th seed in the 500 freestyle after a career-best 5:21.99 at section, will need to shed seconds just to ad-vance to the consolation heat.
Here are the first-round matchups for the five Cardinal wrestlers who qualified for the Class AAA state individuals. Matches in AAA are scheduled to begin at 1 p.m. Friday at Xcel Energy Center.
At 103 pounds, sophomore Nate Mittag (19-6) wrestles Apple Valley freshman Seth Gross (28-6). At 130 pounds, junior Alex Johannes (29-2) is up against junior James Lettow (25-12) of Edina. At 152, senior Coty Milhausen (31-4) meets junior Adam Jackson (35-2) of Rosemount. At 189, senior Nathanial Swoyer faces senior Ben Reil (24-13) of Stillwater. And at heavyweight, sophomore Cass Herzog (12-9) takes on Stillwater's Brock Horwath, a senior with a 36-2 mark.
Winners advance to the quarterfinals at 7 p.m. Wrestlebacks begin at 8 p.m. The AAA semifinal round starts at 11:15 a.m. Saturday and the championship matches at 7:30 p.m.
Johannes and Swoyer also competed last year. Johannes is now a two-time section champion. Senior Seth Pollock, a section champ in 2010 at 125 pounds, lost a 5-3 decision in a true-second match at 135 pounds, denying him a repeat trip. The last Willmar wrestler to medal at state was Drew Larson, the AAA runnerup at 145 pounds in 2007.
The Cardinal boys hockey team has a rare platform now that it has reached the section final. In 2003, the Cardinals reached the section final for the first time in the history of the contemporary program.
But Willmar lost to Fergus Falls 5-2 at the Runestone Arena in Alexandria. Willmar had deserving teams in the mid-1980s, but the tournament was single class then and the road to state led through Bloomington when both Kennedy and Jefferson were rink super powers.
At the turn of the century, Willmar was still operating in the big-school class and even victories over tradition-rich Roseau and Bemidji didn't equate to a state invitation.
Willmar did send an "Iron Six" to state -- by train -- in 1947. The team won a best-of-three series against the Granite Falls Beavers, then lost to Eveleth and St. Cloud Tech at state. The fledgling program was dropped before another winter.
Willmar restarted in 1972-73 on the same outdoor rink at Garfield Park. After 36 seasons, the Cardinals are still looking to break through.
Alexandria, which bounced Willmar in the semifinals of Section 6A last year, has raised its game a notch in the playoffs. They beat Fergus Falls 4-3 in two overtimes in the quarterfinals, after losing 4-2 to the Otters eight days earlier. They had nudged St. Cloud Apollo 4-3 on Feb. 3, but in the semifinals blanked the No. 9 seed 4-0.
The two finalists split their Central Lakes Conference meetings. Willmar has the higher seed (No. 3 vs. No. 5) and the better record, but Willmar itself showed at this point that doesn't mean much when the puck drops after they outplayed No. 2-seed Sartell on Saturday.
If Willmar continues its excellent postseason play this season, the program can improve on an 0-4 mark facing Alexandria in post-season and board that train to state once again.
Both the Ridgewater College spring teams are off to Florida. The baseball team is going by bus to St. Petersburg, Fla., in time to start playing games on Saturday against Juco teams from Divisions I, II and III. Pitcher and catchers started workouts in mid-January and full team workouts began in mid-February.
The Warriors, region runners-up in 2010, were snubbed in the pre-season ratings despite returning 14 players, including the entire infield and All-America catcher Shane Kampsen of Paynesville.
The Lady Warriors softball team flies to Florida Friday morning for six games in Orlando. Captain's practice began Jan. 15 and formal workouts Feb. 15. Three players return: shortstop Emily Roelike of Belgrade, catcher Brandi Bodin of Clara City and first baseman Sara Beyer of Morris.
On the fly
Willmar graduate Tracy (Engstrom) Cassano took Rosemount to its first tournament in girls hockey, losing 6-0 to Edina, coached by her former Gopher teammate Laura Slominski. Tracy and Laura were co-captains on the 2000 national championship team.
Cardinal football coach Jon Konold has learned that senior linebacker Nathanial Swoyer will play in the 38th annual Coaches All-Star Game June 25 at TCF Stadium.
Chelsey Wierschem, a sophomore wing on the UW-Superior women's hockey team, has been named NCHA honorable mention. The Yellowjackets finished third in the conference and Wierschem was the team leader in points with 11 goals and 6 assists.
The Central Lakes Conference recent Top Performers from Willmar are -- Sara Kallhoff, Girls Basketball (Defense); in three games the senior guard compiled 11 rebounds, 14 steals and two blocked shots ... Grant Schow, Boys Hockey (Offense); the senior right wing accounted for two goals and two assists in two section wins.