MAYER — Facing a second-half deficit in its playoff opener and sweating its way through a shootout in the quarterfinal, Willmar and its players had to manage their emotions through the first two matches of the postseason.

However, with their season on the line against a team that has only dropped two matches all year, the Cardinals had the luxury of playing from ahead early and never looked back.

Willmar sophomore attacker Alvaro Cortes Heras tries to gain control of the ball on his second touch during Monday's Section 6A semifinal against Mayer Lutheran. 

Patrick Bernadeau / West Central Tribune
Willmar sophomore attacker Alvaro Cortes Heras tries to gain control of the ball on his second touch during Monday's Section 6A semifinal against Mayer Lutheran. Patrick Bernadeau / West Central Tribune

Sophomore attacker Alvaro Cortes Heras scored the first of two goals just two minutes into a Section 6A semifinal against Mayer Lutheran. His offense, along with solid play through all levels of the pitch, helped propel eighth-seeded Willmar to a 3-1 victory over the No. 4 Crusaders on Monday from Rev. John E. Melchert Field.

Willmar will look to advance to state for the first time since 2016 at 6 p.m. Wednesday as it will travel to face No. 2 Orono. The Spartans beat No. 3 Holy Family Catholic with a goal by in the 57th minute by Andy DeWitt to win 1-0.

“I think our playoff run is validating the strength and depth of our team,” Cardinals head coach Jeff Winter said. “Our record sure didn’t show it in the regular season, but as I’ve said before, with five one-goal games, five overtime games that we just were on the wrong side of, this is redemption for their hard work, dedication to the team, and not giving up.”

After receiving a pass from junior midfielder Liban Mohamed, Alvaro Cortes chipped the ball over the reach of Mayer Lutheran senior goalkeeper Brady Harnung to give the visitors the early advantage.

“I thought it gave them the sense of hope, like ‘we can do this,’” Winter said. “We’re certainly not used to playing with a lead.”

In the second half off of a throw-in, Crusaders junior defender Sam Pellett accidentally headed the ball in the direction of Alvaro Cortes, who would bury a shot off the volley and essentially seal the match.

Mayer Lutheran eighth-grader midfielder Jacob Bettin and Willmar sophomore attacker Jorge Zelaya Velasquez battle for the ball during Monday's Section 6A from Rev. John E. Melchert Field. 

Patrick Bernadeau/West Central Tribune
Mayer Lutheran eighth-grader midfielder Jacob Bettin and Willmar sophomore attacker Jorge Zelaya Velasquez battle for the ball during Monday's Section 6A from Rev. John E. Melchert Field. Patrick Bernadeau/West Central Tribune

The sophomore began his 2019 campaign as a member of the junior varsity squad. Now, in the most crucial point of the year, the young attacker is making a name for himself.

“It’s amazing to play here with these guys that are really good,” Alvaro Cortes said. “Scoring two goals here is awesome.”

Willmar held its cushion with the work of its midfielders, as sophomores Jordy Cortreras and Diego Gonzalez controlled possession from the sidelines while fellow sophomore Anthony Reyes did his damage from the middle. But it was another sophomore midfielder that extended the road team’s lead.

Mohamedfatah Mohamed notched the eventually game-winner on a penalty kick after junior midfielder Kelvin Gomez Padilla was fouled in the box during the 35th minute.

Willmar sophomore midfielder Mohamedfatah Mohamed delivers a pass by the oncoming defenders during Monday's Section 6A semifinal against Mayer Lutheran from Rev. John E. Melchert Field. 

Patrick Bernadeau/West Central Tribune
Willmar sophomore midfielder Mohamedfatah Mohamed delivers a pass by the oncoming defenders during Monday's Section 6A semifinal against Mayer Lutheran from Rev. John E. Melchert Field. Patrick Bernadeau/West Central Tribune

“It amazing to be playing here as a sophomore,” Mohamed said. “It’s my first year playing here, so I’m happy that I’m here. I just wanted to win the game and go to the final.”

Mayer Lutheran, a team that averages three-and-a-half goals a game collect its only tally during the 44th minute on a penalty from junior midfielder Sawyer Ritter. Leighton Winter had a read on the kick, but the ball skipped over the goalkeeper as he went down for the save.

The junior was not pressured for much of the match, though, as he only needed to make three saves to put up the victory.

“I’d say we played strong all the way around. I don’t know if I could pick offense over defense, midfield over anybody,” Jeff Winter said.

“Tonight, I think it was a combination of the defense and the strong play of the midfield. We emphasized them coming back and helping them play defense on a small, beat-up field. We knew that we had to get back behind the ball and counter-attack on the small field.”

Willmar 3, Mayer Lutheran 1

Willmar (9-8-2)................. 2 1 — 3
Mayer Luth. (15-3-1)........ 0 1 — 1
FIRST HALF – W: Alvaro Cortes Heras (Liban Mohamed) 2nd minute ... W: Mohamedfatah Mohamed (Kelvin Gomez Padilla) 35th minute (PK)
SECOND HALF – M: Sawyer Ritter 44th minute (PK) ... W: Cortes Heras (Josh Miley) 53rd minute.
SHOTS ON GOAL – Willmar: 8 ... Mayer Lutheran ... 4
GOALIE SAVES – Willmar: Leighton Winter: 3 … Mayer Lutheran: Brady Harnung 5

DEFENSIVE SAVES – None