ORONO — Twice in the middle of the decade, Willmar and Orono have met in a section final to decide who will compete at state.
With each earning a victory over the course of the rivalry, the two teams locked horns again to close out the decade. At the end of 80 minutes, round three went to the Spartans.
Facing a suffocating defense, the eighth-seeded Cardinals could not muster many quality chances as their surprising postseason run to an end on Wednesday following a 3-0 defeat during the Section 6A Final from Pesonen Field.
Jumping ahead with a goal in the first half, No. 2-seeded Orono added two more scores in the second to deny Willmar its first trip to state since 2016.
“I think the kids played their hearts out,” Cardinals head coach Jeff Winter said. “We had a really great run through the playoffs. Credit to Orono, they have a real physical team and they knocked us around. That’s kind of the difference.”
Blasting past a couple of defenders in the fourth minute, sophomore midfielder Jordy Cortreras produced an angled shot from in close, but Spartans senior goalkeeper Michael Hughes forced a corner kick by knocking it away.
From then on, all of Willmar’s scoring chances came from distance, as Orono’s defenders were rarely out of position while the team’s midfielders brought aggressive pressure. Cardinals junior Kelvin Gomez Padilla, the team’s top playmaker rarely had space to operate from the middle of the field.
“They had numbers and strong, physical play,” Winter said of the Spartan defense. “They had a lot of guys back and they played real physical with our smaller kids. Kelvin isn’t real big and he got knocked around a lot.”
While Orono’s defense was dominant, it was a Willmar mistake from its back line that lead to the match’s opening score. During the 12th minute, a pair of Cardinals went for a ball that was played back, but neither made contact, allowing Spartans sophomore midfielder Ben Summers to sneak through and bury a goal past junior goalkeeper Leighton Winter.
The hosts maintained a 2-0 advantage until the 67th minute when a free kick into the box from midfield was headed to the back of the net by junior attacker Fin Rohrer.
Just five minutes prior, Willmar had its best chance to equalize. On the tail end of a great build, Alvaro Cortes Heras launched a shot from the right edge of the box that knuckled toward goal, but Hughes made the stop after fielding the ball off a tricky bounce.
In total, the visitors could only produce four shots on goal.
“We’re just learning to play team defense a lot better,” Spartans head coach Derek Engler said. “There’s no sense of ‘me’ in the team, everyone plays team defense. All 10 players are playing defense all around the field. They know that that’s their first job; play defense first and offense second.”
After Willmar went down to 10 players due to a red card, Orono earned its final tally on a score from Holden Schrarf. With the win, the Spartans improved their record to 16-2-2, while the Cardinals, who had six seniors play their final match of their high-school career, closed their season at 9-9-2.
“I’ll think about the guys that I was with and how fun it was to play with them,” senior captain Devin Sankey said. “Every guy that I was with, I loved playing with them, I loved leading them, I loved being a teammate and a friend. It was less about being on the field with and more about being off the field with these guys. We winning together was awesome. Losing together sucked, but we played together as a team.”