Cardinal sports changing face

Ken Heitzman, the head football coach at Willamar the last 12 years, turned in his official letter of resignation on Monday. It's been part of his life every fall for 30 years, since a kid growing up in Sartell. He's coached in the Willmar progra...

Ken Heitzman, the head football coach at Willamar the last 12 years, turned in his official letter of resignation on Monday.

It's been part of his life every fall for 30 years, since a kid growing up in Sartell.

He's coached in the Willmar program since 1988. That was a big year in Cardinal football. In sections, Willmar crushed St. Cloud Tech and Brainerd by a combined total of 64 points, then beat Elk River 27-24.

The next week, Willmar lost 28-25 to Richfield at Hodapp Field in the big-class state quarterfinals. The Cardinals went to the state quarterfinals the next year, too, this time losing at home to Burnsville, 27-11.

The Cardinals haven't been back since. Those two teams each had 12 players named all-conference.


Willmar had a couple more good runs in the early 1990s, but in post-season were socked by the likes of Elk River and Wayzata.

Willmar, under Heitzman, had two outstanding teams in the falls of 1999 and 2000, only to be jolted in the playoffs by Bloomington Jefferson and Burnsville.

Heitzman did all he could to keep the program running at a high level. He encouraged athletes to have a disciplined approach to off-season conditioning, and he established the Cardinal Acceleration program, which also benefited athletes at the college.

There have been some excellent skill players over the years. But there has been a definite shortage of multiple big athletic linemen who control the line of scrimmage.

Hockey and football seem to follow the same athletic cycle, up in '83-84, '87-88 and 99-00, just like football. There were also winning seasons for hockey early this century, but the last four have been a struggle with a high of seven wins (twice).

Hockey, by the way, has had seven head coaches since 1990 compared to two for football. During that time, football has won three Central Lakes Conference titles and hockey has none. Lesson: Coaching changes are seldom a solution.

It depends more on the pool of athletes and their individual desire to excel.

As football is to Hutchinson, basketball has been Willmar's signature sport since 1913 when the Cardinals went to the first state tournament held.


Basketball draws the most numbers and many of the top athletes. So, maybe it's a little greedy to expect championships in multiple major sports. The Central Lakes should not be compared to the West Central Conference where Willmar was always the big dog as far as enrollment.

Another point, Willmar's student body is no doubt the most diverse racially in the conference. That's been good for soccer and distance running, but to this point it hasn't helped the high-profile sports. Hockey has scholarship programs to assist minorities and others who need help financially.

The high school, as of last Friday, has 1,238 students in its four grades. The minority population is at 28.7 percent, according to principal Rob Anderson.

In 1999-2000, the high school minority population was 10.9 percent.

It's part of the changing face of Willmar and the changing look of Cardinal sports.

On the fly

n Ridgewater College couldn't keep its men's varsity soccer team going, but the club team has worked out well, said coach Edel Fernandez. The club team, which can include part-time students, went 7-7. Fernandez hopes to gain players who graduate next spring off the high school teams.

n Mary Sussenguth, a Minnesota State, Moorhead 6-1 junior, is tied for first in total blocks in the 11-team Northern Sun Intercollegiate Conference. She has 10 solos and 86 assists in 96 games. She finished second in the league as a sophomore / .... Kyle Eckhoff, a MSUM junior is being redshirted in cross country ... Kari Bloch, a Dragons sophomore, finished 36th (fifth on the team) at the NSIC meet .... Paul Kimpling, a sophomore running for Minnesota-Duluth, finished 63rd in the men's 8k in 28:47.


n Senior Chelsey Wierschem is already among the top scorers in the history of Cardinal girls hockey with one year to go. As practice begins this week for the opener Nov. 21, hockey is just one of her college options. Colleges also have shown interest in her for soccer and softball.

n Brad Skoglund (WHS 1978) played under Philadelphia Phillies manager Charlie Manuel in 1983 at Class A Wisconsin Rapids. It was Manuel's first job as manager. Skoglund, who was signed out of a Twins' tryout camp, didn't last long in pro ball, but he's leaving his mark in high school baseball as the coach of the Paynesville Bulldogs.

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