ALEXANDRIA - The last three falls for Willmar football have been heartbreakers.
In 2015 and 2016, the Cardinals' season ended in the Section 8AAAA finals at the hands of Rocori. In 2017, the favored Cardinals were upset by Detroit Lakes in the opening round.
But on Friday, Willmar had a blazing start. And when things got tight, the Cardinals didn't falter.
And for the first time in 30 years, Willmar is headed to state.
Behind an offense that scored on every one of its drives in the first half, followed by a defense that did enough to slow down top-seeded Detroit Lakes' run game, the second-seeded Cardinals won the Section 8AAAA championship with a 50-28 victory at Alexandria High School.
"It's almost a miracle," said senior wideout/defensive back Ty Roelofs. "It's so insane."
After years of heartbreak, the players were fired up to grab their section trophy and sing the school song in front of the small sea of red from the student section that was ready to charge the turf.
"You can't really imagine how good it feels to actually win a game that takes you to state," said defensive lineman Carter Ochsendorf. "Now we just have to keep moving forward and win it all. ... We were definitely out for a little bit of revenge but it was a good game and they all congratulated us afterwards."
"This is special. I'm so happy for the kids," said Willmar head coach Jon Konold, who was an eighth-grader in Minneota when the Cardinals last went to state in 1988. "They worked so hard and came through when times got tough there later in the game."
The Cardinals' opening drive ended with a 27-yard Ty Roelofs touchdown catch from Drey Dirksen. Then after the Lakers responded with a 48-yard play-action touchdown, Willmar got on the board again thanks to a 1-yard run from Dirksen.
Before the break, Willmar had scored on its first five drives courtesy of Alex Wickliff (5-yard run), Ethan Roux (21-yard catch) and Jake Evans (4-yard catch) en route to a 36-point first half.
"We knew it was going to be a dogfight right away," Dirksen said. "We knew we all had to play our best game. Our offense, we set the tone tonight. Everything was going our way."
But, Detroit Lakes was able to bang out big plays to keep the game in arm's reach with two TD runs from Gabe Hanninen.
"They're a physical team and they don't stop moving their feet," Ochsendorf said. "They keep moving, keep moving, keep moving. They don't stop at all."
Willmar had a chance to pull away at the start of the third quarter when the Lakers fumbled the opening kickoff before an interception ruined that opportunity.
Isaiah Thompson, who led the Lakers' offense with 215 yards on 22 carries, scored from 4 yards out to make it 36-28 with 4 minutes, 59 seconds left in the third.
From that point, the defense found a way to limit the big plays from Detroit Lakes' run game.
"The (defensive) coaches went to a four-linebacker look instead of three," Konold said. "That gave them better assignments and allowed them to stop the back from getting outside."
And while the Lakers held the Cardinals' passing game largely in check, the trio of Dirksen, Roux and Wickliff shouldered the load together, chewing clock and helping Willmar pull away with a 9-yard Dirksen touchdown. As a team, Willmar out-gained Detroit Lakes on the ground 319-247.
"I told Ethan and Alex, 'Run hard, tuck the ball and run fast,'" Dirksen said. "And that's what they did and they did a fantastic job. I can't say anything more about the team. I'm glad to be a part of it."
With one more week of football assured, Willmar will face Section 7AAAA champion Hermantown in the state quarterfinals on Friday, Nov. 9 at Monticello.
Willmar 50, Detroit Lakes 28
Willmar (9-1) 14 22 0 14 - 50
Detroit Lakes (9-1) 7 21 7 0 - 28
W - Ty Roelofs 27 pass from Drey Dirksen (LaBlue Moo kick)
DL - Reed Mace 48 pass from Max Gunderson (Braeden Wimmer kick)
W - Dirksen 1 run (Moo kick)
W - Alex Wickliff 5 run (Moo kick)
DL - Gabe Hanninen 1 run (Wimmer kick)
W - Ethan Roux 21 pass from Dirksen (Moo kick)
DL - Hanninen 1 run (Wimmer kick)
W - Jake Evans 4 pass from Dirksen (Roelofs run)
DL - Isaiah Thompson 4 run (Wimmer kick)
W - Dirksen 9 run (Moo kick)
W - Roelofs 13 pass from Dirksen (Moo kick)
First downs: 21 ... Penalties: 3-20 ... Rushing (Individual and team): Alex Wickliff 14-90, Drey Dirksen 22-128, Caleb Owens 2-7, Ethan Roux 19-94. 57-319 ... Passing (Individual and team): Dirksen 11-19-186-1 ... Receiving (Individual and team): Jake Evans 3-20, Ty Roelofs 4-110, Ryan Slette 2-12, Roux 2-44 ... Interceptions: None ... Fumble recoveries: Matt Bengtson ... Tackles (solo-assist): Charlie Farhat 1-7, Kadin Larsson 6-3, Roelofs 3-4, Ben Hisken 2-2, Andrew Reigstad 1-3, Owens 0-5 ... QB sacks: Carter Ochsendorf 1, Tyler Vlaminck 1
First downs: 14 ... Penalties: 1-2 ... Rushing (Individual and team): Gabe Hanninen 6-13, Max Gunderson 6-15, Reed Mace 1-4, Isaiah Thompson 22-215. 35-247 ... Passing (Individual and team): Gunderson 6-11-136-0 ... Receiving (Individual and team): Mace 2-60, Hanninen 2-57, Reed Reller 2-19 ... Interceptions: Thompson 1 ... Fumble recoveries: None ... Tackles (solo-assist): Brady Morris 7-0, William Green 6-1, Hanninen 6-0, Caleb Tangen 6-0, Charles Barnett 5-0 ... QB sacks: Noah Olds 1, Noah Steffl 1