Girls Basketball: Cards getting defensive on road to State
Dustin Carlson pauses, gazing toward the Central Lakes Conference team banners hanging on the wall at the north end of the Willmar High School gym, and considers the possible answers to the question at hand.
When was the foundation laid for the stingy, suffocating and smothering defense played by his Cardinals girls basketball team, which enters the weekend two games away from its first State tournament appearance since 2010?
Perhaps it was over the summer, when the Cardinals perspired on the court while the west central Minnesota sun glistened outside; or, maybe, it stems from competition for minutes that led to hard work on that side of the ball.
As valid as those explanations may be, there is another answer that traces back one decade: Willmar takes after Carlson, its head coach and former standout defensive end at Concordia College.
Albeit in a different sport now, there is the same approach to winning for Carlson: stifling the opponent's offense—and the Cardinals just so happen to be very good at it.
"I think a lot of the defensive success is just the versatility that we have," Willmar forward Heidi Sellman said. "We have blocked shots, we get steals, we play good defense, we can match up well. We have good helpers, and every aspect of a solid defense we have. It helps that we have that, and we're not all just one-dimensional."
The second-seeded Cardinals, coming off a 69-33 win over Rocori in their Section 5AAA quarterfinal on Tuesday, will bring one of the state's top defensive units with them against third-seeded Big Lake at 7:30 p.m. today at Buffalo.
Averaging 46.4 points against per game, Willmar has held its opponent to under 50 points in nine of its last ten games and allowed 40 or fewer in seven of the last ten contests.
"We can give people some fits on offense," Carlson said. "They'll throw the ball away and turn it over. It gives the girls a little bit of confidence seeing other teams get frustrated."
Sellman notes that, in regards to Willmar's defense, the apple doesn't fall far from the tree.
"[Carlson] is one of the most intense people I've ever met," she said. "Not everybody has that taste, but as you have him longer, you buy into that and realize he wants the best for us. We're really a family and he's like our dad and we're like his daughters."
Family matters, then, have been mostly positive for the Cardinals. Their second-half surge to becoming one of the top Class 3A teams in the state took place right alongside the stellar defensive outputs over the past month.
"Probably midway through the season, you start looking at some of our scores and realizing we are getting pretty tough on defense," Carlson said. "We never think we're that good on defense—we can always get a little bit better. But we've done pretty well, and once we started defensive rebounding we've been pretty tough."
Pretty tough, in this case, translates to a 9-1 record over the last 10 games for Willmar, which ended the regular season at 17-9 overall and 12-4 in CLC play.
A search for a secondary defense led Carlson to implement a 3-2 zone, which is a look that opponents won't see on a regular basis. Carlson deemed it a bit of a "goofy" look, but that plays in his team's favor.
"Our whole philosophy is we're going to do what's best for the kids, so we'll switch defenses until we find something that works," he said. "So we tried the 3-2 again this year, and the girls like playing it. It's tough to make easy passes, good quick passes against it."
The team's regular season highlight came when the Cardinals held then-second ranked Alexandria to just nine first-half points in a 40-33 upset victory.
"We feel like when we play our best, we can beat anybody," junior guard Cayle Hovland said.
The one loss in that 9-1 stretch, though, was a 36-34 loss to Sartell to end an eight-game winning streak that brought the Cardinals back down to earth.
"It was frustrating at the time and the girls were really frustrated with losing, especially on senior night, but I think it may help us here in hopefully the next couple of weeks," Carlson said. "We got that reality check that we can't take anything for granted."
Sellman and Hovland both asserted that they hoped to put the offensive woes from the Sartell game in the rearview mirror.
"We can't get panicked on offense with whatever the defense is doing," Hovland said. "We just need to recollect ourselves, calm down and --"
"--And play the basketball we need to play," Sellman finished.
That teamwork comes into play not only when finishing teammates' sentences, but also in a balanced offensive attack.
Eight different players led Willmar in scoring in at least one game this season. Sellman, who scored 20 points over Rocori, led the Cardinals in scoring 11 times—most on the team.
"That's really nice because you don't feel as much pressure on yourself to make sure you're always one of the top scorers," Sellman said. "That's not really what basketball is about, anyway. It's about the teamwork. I think that really shows on our team and everybody steps up when they need to step up."
If Willmar can defeat Big Lake, it would return to the section final and have a State Tournament berth on the line on Thursday.
Ever since losing 51-35 to Becker in the section final last season, the memories of coming up one game short have stuck with the Cardinals.
"I think it motivated us," Hovland said. "We knew we could get it, but getting to State didn't happen. It almost motivated us more to get there this year."