ALEXANDRIA —The last time the Willmar girls hockey team made an appearance in state, most of the girls on the current team were not yet born.

However, after 17 years of frustration, the wait for the Cardinals program, players, coaches and fans is over.

Willmar is headed to its first state tournament since 2003. The Cardinals beat River Lakes 5-1 in the Section 6A final Thursday from the Runestone Community Center.

“I don’t know if it has really set in yet,” Willmar head coach Eric Setrum said. “The girls worked so hard, they stayed the course. I don’t even know what to say; it’s been fantastic.”

In the Cardinals’ finest team moment in nearly two decades, Madison Garberding shined above the rest. Playing arguable the game of her life, the junior forward scored four times to carry her team to St. Paul next week.

“It’s awesome,” Garberding said. “I feel like my puck touches were really good. My shots were just how I wanted them and everything really clicked tonight. I thank the Lord for that.

“It was what we needed and it was fun. I’m glad I finally stepped up for the team. I did what I wanted to do, used all my teammates and it finally all came together.”

Things didn’t start out well for the Division I Brown University commit.

After a scoreless opening period, Garberding was whistled for the game’s first penalty on a slashing call five seconds into the second period. With traffic in front of the net, the Stars capitalized 37 seconds into the power play after junior defender Brianna Deming fired a wrist shot near the point.

Midway through the period, Garberding responded by skating by a pair of River Lakes defenders before netting the tying goal 8:33 into the frame. Less than three minutes later, Garberding put Willmar ahead on the power play.

“Emotions were really high,” Garberding said. “I made a costly mistake, but I just knew that I couldn’t get down from that. We have a whole team and we just needed to show what Willmar girls hockey really is.”

Prior to Garberding's first score, the Stars dominated the game by being physical and getting pucks on the net. Despite controlling the game early, River Lakes led 1-0.

“We were ahead there. That (Deming) goal really gave us a boost and we really turned it up after that,” Stars head coach Rand Roeske said. “It could’ve been 2-0 pretty easily and that would’ve been a big momentum changer.”

Many of the Stars’ shots were wide of the mark, but when the shots were on target, Cardinals senior goaltender Bryton Carlson stopped everything headed her way. She finished with 29 saves, including a spectacular stop on an open-net chance by Deming in the third.

“I knew that my team was in front of me and I knew that we’d be able to work back into it to earn the win,” Carlson said.

On the other end of the ice, seventh-grader Kaydence Roeske finished with 20 saves.

Willmar junior forward Bailey Olson put the game away with a rebound 8:14 into the third. Garberding added a score with 4:45 remaining and another with 16 seconds left. Once those 16 seconds ticked, the Cardinals rushed Carlson to celebrate.

“It’s incredible, there (are) no words to describe it,” Garberding said. “We just worked so hard for this and we knew from the beginning in the season that this is what we want and we finally capitalized on it.”

Section 6A Final

Willmar 5,

River Lakes 1

River Lakes (16-11-1) 0 1 0 — 1
Willmar (18-8-1) 0 2 3 — 5
FIRST PERIOD – No scoring
SECOND PERIOD – (1) RL: Brianna Deming (Brooke Lemke) :42, PP … (2) W: Madison Garberding (Kessa Mara, Tanna Christensen) 8:33 … (3) W: Garberding (Tanna Christensen, Bailey Olson) 11:13, PP.
THIRD PERIOD – (4) W: Olson (Ashley Larson) 8:14 … (5) W: Garberding (Mara, Nina Dawson) 12:05 … (6) W: Garberding (Makenna Larson, Mya Monson) 16:44.
GOALIE SAVES/SHOTS – River Lakes: Kaydence Roeske 20/25 … Willmar: Bryton Carlson 29/30