WILLMAR — In the eyes of Willmar Cardinals’ senior defender Jordy Contreras, the boys soccer team is actually not a team.

It’s a family.

Despite having a variety of different cultures and nationalities, Contreras told the team they are not just Cardinals, but a ‘band of brothers.’

“I’ve been playing (soccer) with these boys since I was little,” he said. “And with these guys, when I say that these are my brothers, I mean they’re my brothers on the field and off the field.”

Head coach Jeff Winter says there could be at least four or five different nationalities on the team this season, including American, Honduran, Mexican and Somali.

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But the team was focused on two things, winning matches and being brothers.

Nothing else mattered.

“I felt like if we could get our positions right, get our chemistry right, I felt like the potential is limitless for our team,” said Contreras, who is a top-five finalist for the Mr. Soccer Award that is given to the state’s outstanding senior. “I feel like we can do whatever we want with this team and we have so much potential and so much skill.”

Willmar, the seventh-ranked team in AA, has outscored its opponents 94-17 and is headed to the state tournament for the first time since 2016. The Cardinals learn their seed and who their opponent will be Saturday.

Quarterfinals in the Class AA state tournament begin Tuesday at various sites and the state championship is 3:30 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 6, at U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis.

“It’s just a gift to see this team succeed the way they have this year,” Winter said. “Everyone is focused on putting the team first and being the best soccer player they can be.”

The teamwork and brotherhood was portrayed perfectly in the 4-3 overtime comeback victory in the Cardinals’ Section 6AA championship against Princeton on Thursday.

Prior to the game at St. Michael-Albertville High School, as the Cardinals gathered in a huddle before the opening kick, Contreras gave a speech reminding the team of its strong bond and trusting each other in the moment.

He also reminded the team that it was officially the time to avenge the Cardinals’ 2-0 loss to Orono in the section playoffs last season.

“I feel like a lot of us have been playing varsity soccer since we were sophomores and ever since we lost (in) the section ... against Orono (in 2020), we’ve been hungrier than ever.”

Winter says Contreras has always had that leadership mentality, even as a youngster.

“We knew about him because I’ve been coaching him on and off since he was about 12,” he said. “He’s been a captain for the last few years, but this year he really stepped up. I think a lot of the kids realize when they are seniors that this is it.”

Willmar senior Jordy Contreras (19) dribbles the ball in the offensive zone while Princeton's Owen Scott Anderson gives chase during the Section 6AA championship game Thursday at St. Michael. Joe Brown / West Central Tribune
Willmar senior Jordy Contreras (19) dribbles the ball in the offensive zone while Princeton's Owen Scott Anderson gives chase during the Section 6AA championship game Thursday at St. Michael. Joe Brown / West Central Tribune

Strong leader

Winter said that he is a top-notch, hard-working leader.

“On the field, he is the most complete player that I have ever coached in my career, which is now 12 years in Willmar with the boys, three before that with the girls and then (St. Cloud) Tech for three. I’ve coached a long time.

“I’ve had great players that have made the all-state team that are great goal-scorers or great defenders. He’s both. He’s box-to-box. What amazes me is how much ground he covers and the natural skills and leadership abilities that he possesses.”

To Contreras, it’s the bond of all the captains and senior leaders that has led the team to its success.

“I can’t really take the credit for leading the team because every captain, every single one of us, we’re all leaders on the field this year,” Contreras said. “That’s what I love about this team. I feel like everyone takes their time to step in and everyone takes control when they know they need to.”

With Princeton leading 3-1 with less than five minutes remaining, the thought of a Princeton upset grew with the final buzzer etching closer with each passing second.

Still, the Cardinals continued to cheer each other on the field and never showed signs of defeat.

The never giving up attitude may have played a role in the Cardinals getting themselves in position for a penalty kick for Willmar senior Gabriel Rodriguez.

Nothing but praise was given to the senior as he prepared for the goal.

After the shot went in, a flock of Cardinals embraced the senior.

Contreras went down following the goal with what looked to be a cramp. After being examined by Winter, he walked off the field on his own power.

Despite showing signs of uncomfort it was not long before Contreras made his way to the substitution line, the adrenaline blocking out any signs of an injury.

Contreras said he was more focused on being with his teammates than the injury.

“Everyone when they saw the two-goal lead (deficit) they didn’t back down. They just thought about it like it was another game, they just kept going and we were stronger than ever,” he said.

He was anxiously waiting to get back into action when senior Jemil Osman tied the game with a goal, forcing overtime.

The goal made Contreras leap for joy while screaming and hyping up the Willmar bleachers.

“When we put those goals in we wanted two more. I just can’t describe how proud I am of these boys and how we never give up,” he said.

History-maker

Following the victory, Contreras says he is happy now that this family has etched its name in Willmar history.

“We’ve been working so hard throughout this whole season. It’s been our goal and we finally accomplished what we wanted. It’s something that you just dream of and it’s nice to have it,” he said.

However, he quickly added, the job is far from finished.

“Right now it feels amazing, we feel accomplished, but we’re still not done,” Contreras said. “We’re still hungry, we still want more and we’re not going to be done until we get that (state championship).”

Winter said his team is solely focused on state.

“We’ve been preaching that since the beginning that every game is a ladder. Every game is another step forward. (Thursday) we probably took two steps forward for us to get into the state tournament. It’s great we took that step, but now we’ve got even bigger goals.”