Tom Elliott: Willmar girls basketball is looking strong for the playoffs
Cards appear to be headed to a top seed in Section 8AAA and a potential state tournament berth. "We're in the driver's seat," Cardinals head coach Dustin Carlson said.
WILLMAR — It’s a little too early to get excited, Dustin Carlson admitted. And if you’ve ever seen the Willmar girls basketball coach courtside, or on the sidelines as an assistant coach on the football team, you know that’s hard for him to do.
But some excitement is appropriate.
The Cards’ girls basketball team is headed to a top seed in Section 8AAA.
“You don’t want to get too excited about anything at this point,” Carlson said. “But we like where we’re at.
“We’re in the driver’s seat.”
Willmar still has six regular-season games to play before heading into the playoffs, including a key Central Lakes Conference game with Sartell on Friday at the Big Red Gym. Sartell’s one of the top teams in the conference, but fortunately for the Cardinals, not in 8AAA.
Willmar moved to 8AAA this year, enabling it to avoid Becker, which is one of the top teams in the state again this year but in Section 5AAA.
If the section started today, the Cardinals would be the top seed in 8AAA. Willmar is 13-7 and has a No. 17 QRF power ranking, according to the website Minnesota-Scores.net, which many sections use for seeding purposes.
Behind Willmar are: No. 26 Alexandria (8-8), No. 31 Rocori (8-9), No. 42 Detroit Lakes (5-9), No. 47 Sauk Rapids (4-13) and No. 54 Little Falls (4-13).
The Cards and Alexandria would get first-round byes. Willmar would then face the winner Detroit Lakes and Sauk Rapids in the second round.
All of this is good news because Willmar already has beaten Alexandria twice, Rocori, Detroit Lakes and Sauk Rapids. And for what it’s worth, it also has beaten Becker. It’ll play Rocori and Sauk Rapids again before the section playoffs.
But if all goes to plan, Willmar would be favored to return to the state tournament for the first time since 2018, which was the last of a three-year run of state berths.
“I think our top players were just as good as those teams (from 2015-18),” Carlson said. “But those teams had a lot of depth. We could go 12 deep and barely miss a beat.”
This year’s squad isn’t as deep. There are two eighth-graders playing key roles: guard Telilie Lange and forward Brielle Ogdahl. Carlson calls them “eighth-graders that are just studs. They keep getting better every day.”
There are seven seniors, who’ll be honored Friday in the Sartell game on Senior Night. They are Sammy Christoffer, Grace Haugen, Ellary Lange, Daniela Parker, Jaida Reiman, Ella Shinn and Adia Laidlaw.
Christoffer is coming back from an ankle injury and played for the first time in a while in Monday’s 60-34 victory over Monticello. Haugen, Lange, Reiman, Shinn and Laidlaw have been key contributors all season.
“We have a strong senior class sprinkled in with a couple of juniors and sophomores,” Carlson said.
He said the Cards have a “little chip on their shoulder” after losing 49-47 to Sartell earlier this year in a game in which they had a double-digit lead.
The state girls basketball tournament is March 16-19 at Williams Arena and the Maturi Pavilion on the University of Minnesota campus in Minneapolis. Willmar clearly has an opportunity to be there.
A look at other sections involving area teams:
New London-Spicer (No. 7 QRF, 17-2 overall), Montevideo (13-1, No. 19) and Litchfield (No. 40, 15-6) look like the teams to beat. All three are good enough to go to state. Only one is going.
And note that despite the QRF, Montevideo and Litchfield have handed NLS its two losses.
No. 50 West Central Area (9-5) and No. 51 Minnewaska (10-8) are aiming for a top-four seed and first-round home game in the playoffs.
No. 84 Morris/Chokio-Alberta (6-12), No. 96 Paynesville (4-13) and No. 119 Atwater-Cosmos-Grove City (2-15) round out the section.
No. 2 Mayer Lutheran (16-2) is the favorite. No. 15 Buffalo Lake-Hector-Stewart (13-4) and No. 16 Central Minnesota Christian (15-6) are top contenders.
BOLD (No. 33 QRF, 10-9) is hoping to hang on to a top-four seed with No. 60 Lester Prairie (1-8) and No. 71 Gibbon-Fairfax-Winthrop (9-10) in contention.
No. 103 Cleveland (5-12), No. 108 Cedar Mountain (5-14) and No. 115 Renville County West (3-16) round out the sub-section.
The South sub-section is led by No. 6 Sleepy Eye St. Mary’s (16-1) and No. 14 Sleepy Eye (17-3).
No. 5 Minneota (20-2) is the team to beat. No. 23 Lac qui Parle Valley (14-5), No. 37 Canby (10-9), No. 49 Yellow Medicine East (9-8), No. 52 Russell-Tyler-Ruthton (13-9) and No. 54 MACCRAY (10-9) are all in contention.
No. 77 Wabasso (7-14), No. 122 Lakeview (2-18) and No. 129 Dawson-Boyd (1-20) also are in the 3A-North
No. 8 Tracy-Milroy-Balaton (15-2) and No. 18 Southwest Minnesota Christian (14-4) are the top teams in 3A-South.
Belgrade-Brooten-Elrosa is the top team right now in 5A-West and still a good bet to get to state. The Jaguars are 12-7 and have a No. 12 QRF. They also anticipate the return of Abby Berge to the lineup after an ankle injury. She’s one of Class A’s top scorers.
In 5A-East, Ogilvie is the potential top seed. The Lions are 11-4 with a No. 29 QRF.
In 6A-South, Hancock has a No. 4 QRF ranking and a 15-1 record. The Owls are the team to beat. Kerkhoven-Murdock-Sunburg (No. 73, 7-11) and Benson (No. 117, 2-10) also are in South-6A.
The top team in 6A-North looks to be Underwood (13-3).