Celebration Saturday: The '87 Willmar Cardinals performed a Friday night miracle
A last-place Central Lakes team during the regular season, the baseball team won the first boys state title in school history
Sports editor’s note: This is the 12th installment of the ‘Celebration Saturday’ series highlighting top individual and team achievements in the West Central Tribune area. Today’s story looks at the Willmar baseball team that won the Class AA state championship in 1987.
WILLMAR — No doubt about it, 1987 was a great year for Willmar Senior High athletics.
The football team made the state playoffs in the fall of ‘87, going 10-2. The boys basketball team made the state tournament for the third time in six seasons in March, ‘87.
And the baseball team? Well, the Cardinals finished last in the Central Lakes Conference, losing their first six CLC games, and had a 7-9 regular-season record. They were the sixth seed in their sub-region.
Rand Middleton, the Willmar Hall of Fame sports reporter who covered the team with Bruce Strand for the West Central Tribune, remembers not making the trip to Mankato to cover the Cards in the region. There was a lot going on and other teams the paper covered seemed to have better chances of winning.
Willmar won not only the sub-region, but the region championship, beating Prior Lake in the semifinals and Mankato West in the championship.
The Cardinals then went on to the state tournament and won the Class AA (largest school) title at the Metrodome in Minneapolis. They beat Hopkins 5-4 with an unlikely rally in the championship, scoring all five runs in the bottom of the seventh. It was called the Friday Night Miracle in Willmar.
But hey, everything is unlikely when you finish last in your conference.
Add that the 1987 Cardinals were the first boys team to win a state team championship in school history and you have a pretty good story.
“Oh absolutely,” said Tim Brunner, the Cardinals’ ace who would pitch for four seasons at Minnesota State-Mankato. “We were a 7-9 team going into the playoffs with barely a team batting average of .200.
“It probably wouldn’t happen today.”
He’s correct, simply because of innings limits and pitch counts. Brunner and Kent Setrum did all the pitching on the last day of the state tournament at the Metrodome, when Willmar beat Park of Cottage Grove 4-1 in the semifinals and then won the Hopkins game later that night.
Setrum wound up getting the victory in each game, going 5-2/3 innings in the semifinal before Brunner got the final four outs for the save. Then, Setrum got the final two outs of the championship game to earn a vulture win because of the Cardinals’ rally in the bottom of the seventh.
“I remember us coming into the dugout in that last inning and telling each other, ‘Hey, we’ve had a real good season, made a good run,” said Brunner, who got the complete-game victory against Anoka and now works in sales and lives in Eagan.
But, Tiffany Schueller had another idea.
She was a junior and the team manager who kept the scorebook. She would become the future Mrs. Brunner. She heard the dugout talk and changed the conversation.
“She said, ‘Come on. You’ve done it before. You can do it again,’” Tim Brunner said..
Setrum had a two-run triple in the five-run seventh. Not bad for a guy who was hitting .145. The winning blow was delivered by Mike Halverson,
“That was big,” Setrum said of the triple. “That was far bigger than my couple outs on the mound.”
Setrum, who works for a liquor distributorship and lives in Houston, Texas, said he can remember every play.
“For me, it was really unbelievable,” he said. “I was in my hotel room afterward with (shortstop) Tim Poppen and (second baseman) Gregg Aamot and my aunt called me from Arizona.”
He didn’t know what to say.
“I was a little bit in shock,” Setrum admitted.
Middleton’s story on the front page of the paper and above the fold with a banner headline began: “How do you write this story? No one would believe it.”
Starting left fielder Pat Dorsey said he believed the Cardinals started to believe they could do something special in the sub-region. They beat a very good Hutchinson team 1-0. Hutch had been a big hurdle to overcome in the basketball playoffs, where Willmar beat the Tigers by one on their way to the state tournament.
Against Hutchinson, Aamot homered for the game’s only run and Brunner got the shutout.
“That Hutchinson game was kind of where we caught fire,” said Dorsey, who also lives in Eagan and is a physical education instructor at Edina Middle School. “I think we had two hits and fortunately for us, one of them went over the fence.
“That game showed us Brunner was as good as anybody.”
Setrum said a scout’s radar gun had Brunner’s fastball clocked at 88 mph in the regional.
“I can’t believe he didn’t get some big-time offers,” Setrum said.
After winning the region, Willmar went to the state tournament banquet before the quarterfinals at Midway Stadium in St. Paul. The Cardinals sat next to their first-round opponent, the Anoka Tornadoes. Several were wearing tuxedos.
“And we were the plow jockeys from Willmar,” Dorsey said.
The Cardinals’ Aaron Anderson made the Willmar group at the banquet laugh when he said: “What are these guys, the waiters?”
Head coach Jon Horning kept the team in check. His players say he was demanding and not afraid to point out mistakes. The expectations were clear. But he also showed his affection for them and didn’t panic. That attention to detail helped the Cardinals overcome the slow start.
Brunner said there were no great expectations for baseball after the state basketball tournament. Dorsey said the slow start may have been because a number of players were missing because of a band trip to Florida.
And while they started 0-6 in the conference, they won three of their last four CLC games before the playoffs.
“You have to remember, the Central Lakes was a really good conference,” Setrum said. “St. Cloud Apollo (the 1985 state champion) was really good. Little Falls had (David) Sorensen and (Rusty) Gwost (who pitched with Brunner at MSU-Mankato).
“Brainerd was tougher than nails. They had (Brett) Streiff (another MSU-Mankato Maverick) and (former Oakland Athletics player) Todd Revenig.”
The Cardinals also started making less mental mistakes, started to become a better defensive club and believed in each other. Everyone was a friend. The camaraderie showed.
“I don’t think we were the most talented team,” said Dorsey, who has been at Edina for 19 years where he was the Hornets’ head basketball coach after stops at St. Cloud Tech and Mound-Westonka. “But we had great camaraderie.”
The team was indeed talented.
Aamot, who had a long career as a news reporter for The Associated Press in Minneapolis and is now an English teacher at Ridgewater, played baseball and football at Gustavus Adolphus.
Halverson, the Cardinals’ first baseman, also played baseball at Gustavus.
Anderson, who coaches in Brainerd, was named high school assistant football coach of the year this past season.
Brunner, of course, pitched at Minnesota State-Mankato.
Dan Carlson (now Johnson) played at St. Cloud State. Carlson’s mammoth home run at the Metrodome, a Kirby Puckett-like shot, was the highlight of the semifinal victory over Park.
“A lot of stuff gets brought up when we get together and that’s one of them,” said Johnson, who remembered the home run being measured at 381 feet.
“It was tough playing the outfield (at the Metrodome),” said Johnson, who lives in St. Cloud and whose son Logan was a starting quarterback in football and a forward in basketball for St. Cloud Apollo. “I remember us taking fly balls purposely at dusk when it was tough to see the baseball so we’d be ready (for the dome).”
Dan Tollefson ended up winning a national Division III championship in men’s hockey at Bemidji State. Dorsey, meanwhile, played basketball at Division II Northern State in Aberdeen, S.D.
“We definitely had a lot of athletes,” Brunner said.
Brunner, who was inducted into the Willmar High School Athletic Hall of Fame, said he believes the committee made a mistake. Instead of him being inducted, the 1987 Willmar baseball team should be.
“We were the epitome of a team,” Brunner said. “Everyone contributed. We don’t accomplish what we did without every one of us.”
Here’s a list of the stories in the series and when they ran:
May 16 — Alex Carlson and Chris Patten (2000 Litchfield boys tennis)
May 23, 26 — 2009 New London-Spicer football
May 30 — 1985 Willmar girls golf team
June 6 — 2005 Paynesville baseball
June 13 — Nikki Swenson (LQPV/D-B cross-country/track, 2007)
June 20 — The 1980-1981 Bird Island-Lake Lillian football and boys basketball teams
July 3 — 2010 Minnewaska girls golf team
July 11 — 1986 Midwest Minnesota girls basketball
July 18 — Link Steffen (Granite Falls-Clarkfield wrestling, 1993)
July 24 — 1998-2000 Central Minnesota Christian volleyball
Aug. 1 — 2001 Atwater-Cosmos-Grove City football
Aug. 8 — 1987 Willmar baseball