Cards find door open at state
It's amazing what happens when a titan falls.
Apple Valley's stranglehold over Section 2A wrestling is over after reaching every state tournament since 1982, including 12 consecutive state titles, giving way to Shakopee, now the top seed in Thursday's Class AAA state tournament.
The win, you could argue, gives more than just Shakopee cause for optimism.
The Willmar Cardinals, who now have the second-longest active state tournament appearance streak, will make their seventh-straight trip today with their highest hopes in recent memory.
"The top five teams all have a chance to make the finals," said Willmar head coach Ed Oehlers. "It's a really balanced group. Apple Valley being gone, that pressure is just gone now. There are some good teams here that we have to beat but we feel good."
The Cardinals wrapped up their regular season with a 15-1 dual record to earn the No. 4 seed and a spot in the quarterfinals against Alberta Lea (25-4), the tournament's fifth seed. The opening match of the Class AAA tournament gets underway at 9 a.m. Thursday at the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul.
Albert Lea brings five individual state tournament competitors compared to seven for the Cardinals. It depends on coaching decisions, but many of those competitors could meet up Thursday morning as well.
"They have some good guys that could match up with some our guys," Oehlers said. "What they do early will dictate the match. If we need to throw our horses against theirs we will. Any points we can save against their top guys will ultimately decide the match."
Brody Nielsen (152) and Zach Glazier (170) are the top grapplers for Albert Lea, with a 39-5 and 41-1 record, respectively. Glazier could match up with Willmar's Lincoln Shinn (34-3) in a rematch of the Minnesota Christmas Tournament semifinal where Glazier edged Shinn by a 10-2 major decision.
Albert Lea cannot overlook Clay or Cael Carlson, though, who each enter the tournament with a 41-0 record. It's likely one of the Carlsons wil wrestler Gavin Ignaszewski, the 132-pound individual competitor for Albert Lea who sports a 33-8 record.
The Tigers earned a spot in the state tournament following a 33-19 victory over Owatonna, the top seed in the Section 1AAA tournament. Owatonna defeated Willmar 30-29 in the fifth place match last season.
Though a trip to the semifinals is certainly no guarantee for the Cardinals, Oehlers and the Cardinals also appreciate their potential next round draw with Shakopee. That means the Cardinals would be able to avoid St. Michael-Albertville and Anoka until a potential championship match. Willmar's only loss of the season came to St. Michael-Albertville, the same team that ended their state tournament run in the quarterfinals last season.
"We're sitting good at No. 4," Oehlers said. "Our bracket lined up good for us. The fact that we can miss Apple Valley completely and St. Michael-Albertville until the finals, that works well for us."
Willmar has seen their season end short of the finals at the hands of Knights in three of their last six seasons and twice by Apple Valley. Even if their nemesis stands in their way again, the Cardinals will return to Willmar with some hardware for their troubles.
"We're hoping to come back with the plaque," Oehlers said. "We have a pretty unique group. It would be awesome for Willmar if we could do that."