ST. MICHAEL — For the first time since 2016, the Willmar boys soccer team is section champion
The seventh-ranked Cardinals did it with a 4-3 comeback win over Princeton on Thursday at St. Michael-Albertville High School in the Section 6AA final..
Willmar advances to the state Class AA tournament with the victory.
The Cardinals scored two goals in the closing minutes of regulation to tie the match at 3-3 before scoring the final goal on a penalty kick in overtime for the win.
“It’s absolutely unbelievable, truly remarkable,” Willmar coach Jeff Winter said. “They just held a ‘never-say-die’ attitude. Being down 3-1 with four minutes in the game to end up winning 4-3; I’m just blown away by their tenacious willingness to never roll over.”
Quarterfinals in the Class AA state tournament begin Oct. 26 and the state championship is 3:30 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 6, at U.S. Bank Stadium. Seeding takes place Saturday.
Seniors Abdullahi Mohamud, Jemil Osman, Gabriel Rodriguez and Anthony Reyes Jimenez all scored goals in the victory.
Princeton senior forward Cooper Nowak was the game’s leading goal scorer with two.
“I’m feeling really happy right now,” Mohamud said. “We were down by two and we didn’t give up. We just kept running and kept pushing, kept lifting each other up and now we’re going to state.”
For senior Jordy Contreras, the comeback victory brought relief in earning a state tournament berth.
“There was a lot of pressure, but we played as a team from the beginning to the end,” Contreras said. “I’m so proud of these guys. We have been working our butts off the whole season. I think we deserve this.”
Thursday was the second time this season the Tigers and the Cardinals met.
Willmar won the first matchup 3-1 on Sept. 11.
Princeton came into the section championship on a nine-game undefeated streak, going 8-0-1 since losing to Willmar.
The chilly weather and 60-plus-mile distance from Willmar to St. Michael did not stop the Willmar student section, or the prep band, from making an appearance in support of the Cardinals.
However, coats, blankets and gloves were worn both in the stands and the sidelines.
The Tigers played like a defense-oriented group with their main focus being to limit the Cardinals’ scoring chances.
Its offensive strategy was to get the ball to Nowak. That was something Willmar was somewhat ready for.
“Obviously we had to shut down (Nowak), which we weren’t great at,” Winter said. “He’s a phenomenal player.”
Princeton did its best to shut down the Cardinals' scoring chances at getting the ball inside the box, particularly in the first half.
Willmar attempted to connect with the Cardinals’ top goal scorers in Jemil Osman and Mohamud inside, but were eventually forced to shoot deep shots.
Tigers’ goalie Ben Hallberg was active both inside and outside the box in the first half, but went down with an apparent leg injury near the conclusion of the first half. Hallberg opted to continue playing, stretching his legs, but showed signs of discomfort with winces and walking with a slight limp throughout the remainder of the first half.
The second half brought colder weather, dropping to low 40s, but heated intensity.
Nowak scored the first goal of the game in the 44th minute, shifting the energy from the Willmar bleachers to Princeton.
It wasn’t until the 58th minute when Mohamud kicked a low shot that went right between the legs of Hallberg, bringing energy back to the Willmar base.
“We were not going to give up our hopes of state, we worked way too hard to get here,” Mohamud said. “I’m just happy I was able to help by scoring that goal.”
Princeton senior Beck Wogen scored in the 70th minute, followed by Nowak scoring his second goal in the 75th minute, increasing the thoughts of an upset.
Willmar’s prayers for a comeback were answered with senior Gabriel Rodriguez scoring on a penalty kick in the 76th minute.
One minute later, with the monumentum with Willmar, and the student section doing its best to be heard, Osman managed to score the tying goal in the 77th minute, bringing the entire Willmar bench to its feet, and had players leaping and yelling with joy.
“It was great to score that goal,” Osman said. “I just can’t believe we scored two goals in less than five minutes. But that was brilliant.”
With muscles beginning to stiffen heading into overtime, players were stretching and looking for potassium heading into overtime.
In the huddle, Contreras and junior goalie Andrew Ziebarth began to rally the Cardinals’ players.
Three minutes into overtime, Willmar had its chance. The Cardinals were rewarded a penalty shot, igniting the players and fans.
Reyes Jimenez was the one who was going to kick it.
“It was a lot of pressure, man,” Reyes Jimenez said regarding taking the penalty kick. “But as a captain, my teammates made me feel like I could make it.”
The senior went on to explain how it felt to see the game-winning shot connect with nylon.
“I thank God for all of this,” he said. “I thought about everything that we have been through from my sophomore year to this year.
“Now that we made it to state, I just can’t believe it. So proud to be a part of this team.”
Immediately after the goal, the Cardinals’ sidelines stormed the field moments before being met by the Willmar fan section. Everyone stayed there celebrating until it was time for the players to leave the field and get on the bus.
Winter credited the senior leadership for leading the Cardinals in the comeback.
“They’re definitely unparalleled,” he said. “I don’t think that I’ve ever had a team that’s done that except for in my first year (coaching at Willmar) … these kids are phenomenal. They just don’t quit.”
Winter believes the resemblance of the Cardinals’ former state team has been a key motivation factor in this year’s Cardinals heading to state.
“Ever since 2016, I have compared every team that I’ve had to that team. That’s the measuring stick and these guys have heard about it for years. They were like ‘let’s beat that and get higher than that.’”