WILLMAR — With 10 returning players, a new section and a strong start, the Willmar boys soccer team is giving head coach Jeff Winter some flashbacks to 2016.

That season, the Cardinals made state for the second time in school history with an 18-2-1 record.

“This is our best chance to go to state since 2016,” Winter said following Willmar’s 8-1 season-opening win over St. Cloud Apollo on Tuesday.

The 2021 iteration of the Cardinals features 12 seniors: Captains Jorge Zelaya Velasquez, Anthony Reyes Jimenez and Jordy Contreras; Alan Milan; Abdullahi Mohamud; Jairon Martinez Coto; Jemil Osman; Gabriel Rodriguez; Miguel Ulloa; Diego Gonzalez; Roger Benavides; and Edwin Lopez.

“A lot of the seniors have played a lot of varsity since they were 10th-graders,” Winter said. “They’ve kind of gelled as a team and as a core.”

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And what could help push them to the heights of the 2016 team and beyond, according to Winter, is the group’s knowledge of the game and knowing the right time to strike. Through two games, the Willmar offense has tallied 12 goals on the way to a 2-0 record.

“They know it’s OK to switch fields and go backwards,” Winter said. “It’s not always a forward game. That leads to long follow-throughs and bad passes. Apollo did that against us (on Tuesday) and once our guys learned that, it was easy to shut down.”

Willmar senior Isaac Zelaya Velasquez heads the ball toward the net during a Central Lakes Conference match against St. Cloud Apollo on Tuesday, Aug. 31, 2021 at Hodapp Field in Willmar. 

Joe Brown / West Central Tribune
Willmar senior Isaac Zelaya Velasquez heads the ball toward the net during a Central Lakes Conference match against St. Cloud Apollo on Tuesday, Aug. 31, 2021 at Hodapp Field in Willmar. Joe Brown / West Central Tribune

Changing some of the Cardinals’ schemes, Winter said he and the coaches drew inspiration from England’s Premier League, one of the top soccer leagues in the world.

“We’ve analyzed the Premier League (and) where goals are scored,” Winter said. “They usually score six or seven different ways and we’ve been practicing those exact things. When you teach the guys that way, teach them why we’re doing it and they’re watching what they do on television, it makes a big difference.”

Winter added, “We’re preaching team play and that assists count as much as a goal. The points count the same in the state stats. It’s about being unselfish. In our game (against Apollo), there were some guys that got a little goal-hungry at the end. But I also saw moments where they thought the team needs to score, so they helped draw the goalie out.”

In net, the Cardinals have a new goalkeeper in junior Andrew Ziebarth, who saw some varsity time in 2020.

“I’m looking forward to seeing him direct things from the back,” Winter said of Ziebarth.

In front of Ziebarth, the defense is led by an improved Jorge Zelaya Velasquez. And at wing back, Winter has liked the early contributions of Mohamud and Contreras.

“Jorge’s been solid back (on defense) since 10th grade,” Winter said. “Wrestling helped him and he’s worked in the weight room. He’s grown and matured the last couple of years and it’s good to see him come into his own.

“With the wing backs, people think of them as defense. But Abdullahi and Jordy, they’re able to get all the way down the field (on offense) and know they have to get all the way back (on defense).”

With the move to three classes, Willmar goes from Section 6A to 6AA, cutting the section bracket down from 19 teams to eight. Other teams in 6AA include: Becker, Big Lake, Monticello, Princeton, Rockford/Howard Lake-Waverly-Winsted, St. Francis and Zimmerman.,

The Cardinals have regular-season games set at Princeton (Sept. 11) and versus Monticello (Oct. 2, rescheduled from Aug. 28).

“This is kind of a perfect storm for us with changes in the section and the state,” Winter said. “Our rival was Orono and they’ve moved to a different section (5AA). We’re really looking forward to playing Monticello. They’ll be one of the main teams in the section.”