Now what? Willmar Cardinal coaches wonder what's next

With all spring sports currently on hold because of pandemic, coaches are in waiting mode

Hodapp Scoreboard
The scoreboard at Hodapp Field is lit Wednesday night to honor the Class of 2020 as part of the "Be the Light Minnesota" initiative. Patrick Bernadeau / West Central Tribune

WILLMAR — During a stroll through his neighborhood last week, Tom Deboer popped by Baker Field at Bill Taunton Stadium, the ballpark the Willmar Cardinals call home.

“I looked around and it just seemed so empty and lonely,” said Deboer, who was supposed to start his sixth season as Willmar’s head baseball coach.

The Cardinals were to take on Alexandria in their first home game of the 2020 season.

Of course, that game was not to be.

Baseball and the rest of the spring sports calendar remains in doubt due the COVID-19 pandemic.


Initially pushing back the start of the spring sports season to April, the Minnesota State High School League has suspended all activities until at least May 4. That announcement from March 25 came after and is in conjunction with Gov. Tim Walz’ directive that school buildings be closed until then.

While the world tries to wait out the deadly and devastating coronavirus, Deboer and four other Willmar spring head coaches reflected on the experiences through the pandemic and the lessons learned from it.

Team makeups

Two years after a state berth and a year removed from the section championship game, Willmar’s baseball team graduated many of its contributors from the 2019 team.

After losing the likes of Drey Dirksen, Andy Schultz and Caleb Owens, the Cardinals’ offense was expected to take a hit. But, Deboer is confident in the five returning pitchers to lead his staff.

Willmar head coach Tom DeBoer directs traffic as the Cardinals' Jett Salonek rounds third to score the eventual winning run in the Cardinals' 2-1 victory over Delano in the Section 6AAA playoffs on June 4, 2019 at Bill Taunton Stadium in Willmar. Tom Larson / West Central Tribune

Tanner Bauman and Ashton Gregory headline a small senior class and two of the few regulars returning in a lineup that was on the doorstep to state last year.

“We have a lot of positive energy and momentum coming off those two years,” Deboer said. “I think that we have a lot of hungry players that are ready to take their turn and step into the lineup and prove that they belong.”

Meanwhile on the other diamond, Hannah Johnson, who missed 2019 with a knee injury, was the softball team’s only starting senior from a year ago.


“We had a young squad full of sophomores, a couple of juniors and one freshman last year,” Willmar softball head coach Shannon Cayler said. “(This year), we had a lot of kids coming back.”

Back as a captain, senior Ashley Prahl was expected to be shortstop. Junior catcher Eden Salisbury and sophomore pitcher/outfielder Lily Reed were penciled in as other key performers.

The baseball and softball teams had practice prior to schools being closed on March 18. With so little time spent with her team, Cayler, who is in her ninth year leading the program, still had certain spots to be filled.

“We were trying to figure out who were going to be the leaders. But after seven days of practice, there’s no way I could clearly answer that question,” Cayler remarked.

Both the boys and girls golf teams had less time together, each holding just two practices before this waiting period.

“It was going to be a really interesting early season to figure out who our varsity team and who our junior varsity team is going to be and give our younger girls a chance to compete for those varsity spots,” said Bryan Mara, Cards girls golf co-head coach with Markee Blahosky. “We graduated three seniors so there were three open spots.

“There are some younger girls that are hungry for those spots and we’re really trying to develop the program from our younger grades.”

Senior Abigail Mathiasen, junior Bailey Olson and sophomore Kessa Mara all return; each shares captain duties. Eighth-grader Shelby Reed was one of the players expected to battle for a vacant spot.


For the boys team, everyone is back. Last year’s squad featured three eighth-graders, two sophomores and a junior. The team and its youth produced inconsistent scores, but in his third season in charge of the boys, head coach Joe Kuehn had his hopes high for improved scores.

“I know that the younger kids played a lot last summer,” Kuehn said. “Are we at the Alexandria, Brainerd, Sartell level? No, we aren’t quite there yet. But, I do believe we are moving in the right direction.”

After years guiding Willmar’s middle school boys tennis program, Forrest Rice is one of two spring coaches in their first season with their respective teams, joining Mike Bobbe, who leads the boys and girls track and field squads.

Hodapp 3
Hodapp Field was lighted Wednesday to honor the Willmar Class of 2020 as it deals with the corona virus pandemic that has closed schools throughout the state. Patrick Bernadeau / West Central Tribune

“I really wanted to build a good, tight-knit team to where there is open communication on all levels,” Rice said. “Part of that was selecting captains and having captains meetings. But, I also was going to have a grade-level council where one person from each grade level can come to me with any questions on the team. ... It’s a lot harder building that team relationship from a social distance, but we’re doing the best with what we’ve got.”

What the coaches say

Three weeks after the players and teams have been sidelined, the coaches commented on some of the challenges they’ve faced life has been like since.


Mara: “We met with all of the girls on (March) 16th. We did some calisthenics and some hitting inside, some putting drills. We kind of spent the day setting up modes of communication because we assumed we’d be out for a couple of weeks for sure.”

Cayler: “There was always the what-ifs, just like everybody else. Once we heard (Gov. Tim Walz’s) official mandate that schools would be closed starting (March 18), there was finally a definitive answer. It wasn’t the what-ifs anymore, it was that we are done. We can practice Monday and Tuesday, but I won’t see you again until the governor says that we can.”

Kuehn: “I hardly got to say good-bye to the kids because it was so last-minute. We basically knew we were going to have two practices and on that Tuesday, I found out that the gyms are shut down at six o’clock and that’s it. I think that was really hard, I hardly got to put any closure to my kids, not even knowing when we were going to be back.”

Deboer: “Off the top of my head, I can’t think of a single thing that’s occurred in my life I can compare this to. That’s so challenging for me. No one has gone through this in our country and it’s hard for us to know what’s going to happen next and how it’s going to feel. As a father of kids who are missing out on activities themselves, it’s pretty emotional not to have that in our lives right now.”


Mara: “I think everybody is pretty bummed out. They were excited about the new season. If you get to this point and you’re playing varsity golf, you really enjoy the sport. ... Beyond that, they also like to compete and they like the social aspect of it. They’re bummed about missing out on that.”

Rice: “I’ve been sending a weekly workout that gives them something to work on daily and it kind of increases incrementally each week. Most of it is a bunch of cardio and calisthenics, but I do incorporate playing the wall. That is something that they can do on their own, playing against their garage door in their driveway.”

Kuehn: “Honestly with golf and the ways the winters have been the last couple of years, basically we’ve only had a May season. Most of our first meets have been at the end of April, that’s just kind of how things have shaken out with weather the last couple of years. ... I just try to keep it very positive and if I’m optimistic, that bleeds down to the kids being optimistic, too.”

Cayler: “The spring and summer seasons they kind of blend. Once you’re done with one, it’s only a matter of a day or less when you’re hopping right into the summer season. You start hearing decisions to close public places, outdoor public places for that length of time, now even my mind is starting to jump to are we even going to be able to play in the summer? Then it really hits at least for me that all softball in 2020, I might not get it. This would be the first time in my life that I’d have zero softball if that happens.”


Deboer: “Sports is about building character. You always emphasize to athletes that they should leave it all on the field and they should give it their all ‘cause you never know when it’s going to be taken away from you. Previously, that’s always meant that your season has come to an end, you played your last game. I think a lot of athletes might look at things differently going forward at practices. Working out, they might value that more. Hopefully, they see the importance of a team, being around teammates and how you treat each other because when you’re done playing and everything just stops, you realize what you are missing.”

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