Prep Wrestling: Willmar with the right mix
Cardinals believe they have all the ingredients for a great season
WILLMAR — After every practice, the Willmar wrestling team makes its end goal very clear: the Cardinals expect to be one of the top teams in Class AAA this season.
“We want that state title and after every practice, we break down and say, ‘State champs on three,’” said Cardinals senior Jonas Anez. “That sets our goal in mind.”
Fellow senior Mason Swanson added, “You have to have that mentality that we can be state champs. We have a lot of wrestlers who can do great things. You have that mentality and go somewhere with it, it goes a long way.”
With the bulk of last year’s 24-2 team back in the mix for 2021-22, Willmar’s goals are sky high. The end-of-practice chant isn’t meant to be braggadocious. Rather, it’s a declaration for a team that wants to go even further after winning the Section 8AAA championship before being knocked out in the Class AAA quarterfinals last winter.
“You can look at that as arrogant or egotistical or whether it’s reachable or not at times, but what I like is right away, they came in with a focus and a high goal,” said Willmar head coach Ed Oehlers.
The Cardinals will have to replace a pair of 20-plus win wrestlers in Kaden Streed and Caden Carlson. But, the bulk of the team is back, including four of the six athletes that made it to the modified eight-person state tournament: Anez; Swanson; freshman Conlan Carlson; and freshman Sully Anez. Seven returning wrestlers won 20-plus matches last season.
“A lot of guys on this team have been wrestling in their homes against their siblings and coming up through our youth program. They’ve been doing it since they were little kids,” said Oehlers, who added that more than 30 athletes are on the wrestling team this season. “That reward is finally starting to come out going into high school. Their wrestling knowledge and how we run the program, they know how things are going to function. We have a good program established and we’re building tradition, and they’re a big part of that.”
After Willmar opened the season last Friday with a win at the Belgrade-Brooten-Elrosa Early Invite, Oehlers admitted there’s just something unique about this group’s chemistry. Previous teams had strong individual talent while the team was lacking. Or, some teams overachieved with a lack of top-tier talent. This season, Oehlers believes he has the right mix of top talent and strong team depth.
“We have guys I think should be placing on the podium again and going for state titles,” Oehlers said. “And we have that chemistry that’ll elevate the people around them. I’m excited to see what happens.”
Even the wrestlers are sensing the difference.
“We got some real good team leaders,” said Swanson, who was 24-9 and placed sixth at state at 220 pounds last season. “The newer guys will go with some of the more experienced guys and they really help them out to get to the same level. We got people working together to make everyone better.”
Last week’s meet at BBE showed what Willmar is capable of. Seven Cardinals — Cavin Carlson, Ivan Ciriaco-Mares, Conlan Carlson, Braeden Erickson, Jonas Anez, Ramero Trevino and Swanson — took first place in the six-team individual tournament. Eleven of the team’s wrestlers finished in the top three.
In the preseason rankings, Jonas Anez (fourth, 160), Conlan Carlson (third, 113) and Swanson (third, 220) are ranked among Class AAA’s best.
“After BBE, it gave us a boost of confidence because we kind of hammered everyone,” said Jonas Anez, who went 29-3 and placed fifth in state at 152. “I think that gave us a lot of confidence.”
The Cardinals have won 67 straight Central Lakes Conference duals and should be a favorite to win their ninth straight conference crown.
After being restricted to just dual meets in the regular season due to COVID-19 restrictions last season, the Cardinals welcome an opportunity to compete in individual tournaments. The biggest one comes courtesy of the Minnesota Christmas Tournament on Dec. 17-18 at Rochester.
“After the Christmas tournament especially, we’re going to see where we’re at competition-wise,” Jonas Anez said. “Last year, we didn’t get to face any of those big teams before state. This year, we’re going to see what we’re made of and either way, we’re going to improve.”
Before any state goals can be reached, there’s the matter of getting out of Section 8AAA. Willmar, Bemidji and Brainerd should be the top contenders for a section title. The preseason rankings have Bemidji seventh, Willmar 11th and Brainerd in the Lean and Mean.
The Cardinals will see both teams in the regular season: vs. Bemidji on Dec. 23 at St. Cloud; and vs. Brainerd on Jan. 27 at Sartell.
“I don’t want to put undue pressure on the guys; We’re going to gear up to do our best in those matches,” Oehlers said. “All three of us are favorites depending on where you look between Bemidji, Brainerd and us, whether it’s the Mat Rat preview or the rankings. They’re looking to us to hold our own and lead that section but we’re not going to overlook anyone. There’s a lot of individual matches amongst those but as far as the team goes, we’ll take it in stride, dual by dual.”
Coach: Ed Oehlers
2021 Record: 24-2; Section 8AAA champion, state quarterfinalist (lost to Anoka, 37-24)
Conference Record: 12-0
At State: Six state entrants, four state medalists
Key Graduates: Kaden Streed (26-6, fifth at state at 195 pounds, super section runner-up, All-CLC); Caden Carlson (25-6, state entrant at 138 pounds, super section runner-up, All-CLC); Tyler Ludwig (6-6 at 182 pounds)
Key Returners: Conlan Carlson, fr. (30-3, fifth at state at 113 pounds, super section runner-up, All-CLC); Jonas Anez, sr. (29-3, fifth at state at 152 pounds, super section runner-up, All-CLC); Mason Swanson, sr. (24-9, sixth at state at 220 pounds, super section runner-up, All-CLC); Ivan Ciriaco-Mares, so. (21-11, sixth at super section at 106 pounds); Braeden Erickson, jr. (21-7 at 145 pounds, All-CLC); Sully Anez, fr. (21-3, state entrant at 120 pounds, super section runner-up); Joe Kallevig, sr. (20-12, sixth at super section at 160 pounds, All-CLC); Steven Cruze, fr. (17-12 at 132 pounds)
Team: 11th (Class AA)
Individuals: Conlan Carlson (third, 113 pounds); Jonas Anez (fourth, 160 pounds); Mason Swanson (third, 220 pounds)