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Boys soccer: Willmar Cardinals taking it step by step

The top-seeded Cardinals aim for a return to the state tournament, but first must get past No. 8 Rockford/Howard Lake-Waverly-Winsted

Willmar senior Kadar Muhumed pushes the ball upfield during a Central Lakes Conference match against Fergus Falls on Thursday, Sept. 22, 2022 at Willmar High School.
Willmar senior Kadar Muhumed pushes the ball upfield during a Central Lakes Conference match against Fergus Falls on Thursday, Sept. 22, 2022 at Willmar High School.
Joe Brown / West Central Tribune
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WILLMAR — For the Willmar boys soccer team, the playoffs are a step-by-step process. The Cardinals recognize that, as No. 1 seed in Section 6AA, they are the favorites to return to the state tournament.

But, first things first.

Willmar must focus and play well to advance. That starts with the Cardinals' first-round match-up with Rockford/Howard Lake-Waverly-Winsted.

The match is set for 2 p.m. Saturday at Willmar High School. It's the first step in what the Cardinals hope is a journey that ends up at U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis.

The Rockets are the eighth seed and have a 0-13-1 record. Willmar is 13-2-1 and has the No. 4 QRF power rating in Class AA, according to Minnesota-Scores.Net.

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"We talk about looking at the end goal of getting to state," Willmar head coach Jeff Winter said. "In order to reach that goal, we have to take it step by step."

Step one is Rockford/HLWW.

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"In order to get to step two and step three, we need to first get past step one," Winter said.

Rockford/HLWW averages 0.9 goals per game and allows 5.6. The Rockets have a No. 63 QRF ranking out of 63 teams in Class AA. Willmar averages 2.2 goals per game and allows 0.7. The Cardinals have allowed 11 goals all season.

Winter said he scouted Rockford/HLWW in a 2-0 loss to Monticello and saw the Rockets playing a defensive-first system that had two blocks of five players spending most of their time on the defensive side.

"They play with everybody back," Winter said.

Willmar will get creative to attack it and the good news for the Cardinals is that they will be at full strength.

"A week off has really helped," Winter said, noting two players were out with concussions and another didn't play with a knee injury.

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Key to the defense is the return of Kadar Muhumed. The senior captain has been an anchor on the defense for three seasons. He missed three games with a concussion. In that time, the Cardinals gave up six of the 11 goals they have given up all season, Winter said.

"He's a difference-maker for us," Winter said. "He reads the game so well.

"Sometimes, I think he sees what the offensive player is going to do before they do."

Willmar senior goalkeeper Andrew Ziebarth, 1, looks to toss the ball downfield during a Central Lakes Conference match against Fergus Falls on Thursday, Sept. 22, 2022 at Willmar High School.
Willmar senior goalkeeper Andrew Ziebarth, 1, looks to toss the ball downfield during a Central Lakes Conference match against Fergus Falls on Thursday, Sept. 22, 2022 at Willmar High School.
Joe Brown / West Central Tribune

Also key to the defense is Andrew Ziebarth. The senior goalkeeper has recorded 10 shutouts this season and has made many memorable, athletic saves.

Junior striker Isaac Zelaya Velasquez, junior midfielder Idd Ali and sophomore midfielder Miguel Altamirano Toruno have been Willmar's top offensive threats. They'll be put to the test to find openings in Rockford/HLWW's defense.

A win Saturday sends the Cardinals into the section semifinals Tuesday. Willmar would host a match against the winner of Monticello (6-8-2) and Becker (6-8). The section final is Thursday at a neutral site, either Buffalo or Monticello.

"I just think Willmar should be looking forward to an exciting playoff run," Winter said. "I think we're going to do well.

"I hope people come out and watch."

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Section 6AA

Quarterfinals Saturday
* No. 8 Rockford/Howard Lake-Waverly-Winsted (0-13-1) at No. 1 Willmar (13-2-1), 2 p.m.
* No. 5 Becker (6-8) at No. 4 Monticello (6-8-2), noon
* No. 7 Zimmerman (2-12) at No. 2 St. Francis (9-7), 1 p.m.
* No. 6 Big Lake (2-12-1) at No. 3 Princeton (9-6-1), 1 p.m.

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