WILLMAR — It’s an exaggeration, but the Willmar Cardinals were dying to get on the ice. When it finally happened Monday, it was a relief.

The anticipation is great for the girls hockey team, which is coming off its first state tournament appearance after a 17-year absence.

“The kids, coming off last year, have really bought in,” Willmar girls hockey coach Eric Setrum said. “They were really into our off-season program and a lot of them, who weren’t in fall activities, were really into training.”

Willmar went 16-8-1 in 2019-20, winding it up with a section championship and a trip to the state Class A tournament in St. Paul. At the Xcel Energy Center, they lost 7-4 to Warroad in the quarterfinals, then fell to Hutchinson 9-4 in the consolation semifinals.

The graduation losses were few: high-scoring forward Mya Monson, steady defenseman Madison Kallevig and goaltender Bryton Carlson, who had an excellent final year in the program.

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Willmar girls hockey head coach Eric Setrum explains a drill to his players during the team's first practice of the season on Monday from the Willmar Civic Center. 

Patrick Bernadeau / West Central Tribune
Willmar girls hockey head coach Eric Setrum explains a drill to his players during the team's first practice of the season on Monday from the Willmar Civic Center. Patrick Bernadeau / West Central Tribune

Monson is now playing hockey at Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter after scoring 23 goals and 26 assists last season.

Carlson, who overcame injuries and bided her time behind others, went 11-7 in net with a 3.72 goals-against average and an .884 save percentage.

The good news, of course, is everybody else is back.

That includes senior Bailey Olson, who led the Cardinals with 36 goals and 28 assists. The tall, athletic forward had three power-play and three short-handed goals. She was a plus-19 on the ice and is headed to the University of Wisconsin-River Falls to play hockey after helping the Cardinals’ volleyball team to a banner fall season.

She’ll be one of the top Class A players in the state, Setrum agreed.

“She’s got a lot of length and is very athletic,” Setrum said. “She’s very driven and competitive and that’s what sets her apart.”

Willmar boys hockey head coach Jamie Hagen talks one of his players through a skating drill during the team's first practice of the season on Monday from the Willmar Civic Center. 

Patrick Bernadeau / West Central Tribune
Willmar boys hockey head coach Jamie Hagen talks one of his players through a skating drill during the team's first practice of the season on Monday from the Willmar Civic Center. Patrick Bernadeau / West Central Tribune

Also back is Division I recruit Madison Garberding, another forward who will be considered among the state’s best. She had 31 goals and 16 assists with four power-play goals and a plus-18 on the ice.

She’s headed to Lindenwood University in St. Charles, Missouri, to play for the Lady Lions. An excellent skater and an excellent student, she’s one of the Cardinals’ leaders, Setrum said.

Other forwards back include seniors Ashley Larson (8 goals, 7 assists) and Jaidon Bredesen (2 goals, 4 assists) and juniors Nina Dawson (7 goals, 18 assists) and Kessa Mara (4 goals, 10 assists).

Setrum also is expecting big things from ninth-graders Chloe Lownsbury (3 assists), Sophia Quinn (1 goal, 1 assist) and Becca Dawson and sophomore Samantha Poe.

Willmar’s defense will be experienced. Seniors Tanna Christensen (5 goals, 5 assists), Brianna Hanson (1 goal, 3 assists) and Audrey Swart (1 assist) and ninth-grader Makenna Larson (8 assists) saw lots of ice time for a team that allowed 3.36 goals per game while scoring 4.8.

Junior Katie Hagen and ninth-grader Avery Quinn are expected to make contributions on the blue line.

The goaltender likely will be Halle Mortensen. The sophomore went 5-1-1 with 2.19 goals-against average as a ninth-grader, including an .881 save percentage.

The schedule is challenging. There are 18 games, including 12 against Central Lakes Conference teams. That includes contests against Class AA schools Brainerd/Little Falls, the St. Cloud Icebreakers and Sartell/Sauk Rapids.

Willmar has also added a Jan. 29 game at Minnetonka, a Twin Cities Class AA power.

“It’s going to be fun to see where we’re at,” Setrum said, noting that some of his players have played with some Minnetonka players in summer hockey. “It should be a good test.”

There’s a home game with Bemidji on Jan. 21, plus two games apiece with CLC rivals River Lakes, Alexandria and Fergus Falls.

Non-conference games include New Ulm, Marshall and Hutchinson, a state Class A participant last season.

“We have a lot of hope for the season,” Setrum said. “We’re just happy, first of all, to have a season. That’s what everybody’s been hoping for.”