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WILLMAR — All season, the Willmar Cardinals boys soccer team wanted to keep its zero.

That zero is in the loss column in the standings. And the Cardinals have done that with a 17-0-2 record heading into the Class AA state quarterfinals.

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In its state opener, Willmar will take on another squad trying to hang onto its own zero in 19-0-0 Worthington Trojans.

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The fourth-seeded Cardinals and fifth-seeded Trojans square off in the Class AA state quarterfinals at 5:30 p.m. Thursday at Waconia High School.

“When Jordy (Contreras, a senior captain) talks in the huddle before the game, it’s about keeping that zero in the scorebook,” said Cardinals head coach Jeff Winter. “I think they realize this is a unique and special year.

“All year, I’ve used 2016 as the measuring stick. These guys want to become the measuring stick.”

The way to do that: win Thursday. In two state appearances, the Cardinals are 0-2. They lost 2-1 to state finalist Northfield in 2016 after a shootout. Willmar lost 2-0 to eventual state champ Blake in 2008.

“The guys know if they win, it’ll be the furthest we’ve ever gone,” said Winter.

In order to do that, it’ll have to come against the highest-scoring team in the state.

Worthington averages 6.5 goals per game. Over the course of the season, the Trojans have outscored opponents 123-5.

Leading their offensive onslaught is sophomore striker Jonathan Banegas. One of the top scorers in the state, Banegas had 44 goals this fall, including 10 in the Section 2AA playoffs.

Willmar senior Gabriel Rodriguez clears the ball in the defensive zone during the first half of the Section 6AA championship game against Princeton on Thursday, Oct. 21, 2021 at St. Michael. 

Joe Brown / West Central Tribune
Willmar senior Gabriel Rodriguez clears the ball in the defensive zone during the first half of the Section 6AA championship game against Princeton on Thursday, Oct. 21, 2021 at St. Michael. Joe Brown / West Central Tribune

Another top attacker is senior Elmer Guzman with 18 goals.

“We’re scouting them and we’re well aware,” Winter said of the Trojans’ offensive capabilities. He wouldn’t divulge the team’s strategy for Thursday, but Winter said, “We have a plan for how to slow them down.”

Winter added, “Our focus hasn’t changed too much. We’re focusing on playing our game and not letting the other team dictate the play.”

After being named the fourth seed, Winter admits to feeling disappointed about the Cardinals’ spot, thinking they could have been the three or possibly the two seed. But, he does like the matchup against the undefeated Trojans.

“I think we’ll fare well against Worthington; we match up well,” Winter said. “I think we’ll be their first true test and I’m banking that maybe they won’t be ready for us.”

With a senior-laden squad that has seen varsity time since they were sophomores, the enormity of playing on the state stage hasn’t been lost on this Willmar squad. The last two seasons, the Cardinals were denied a chance at the state tournament. In 2019, they lost in the section finals to Orono. In 2020, there was no state tournament for fall sports due to precautions over the COVID-19 pandemic.

“They’ve lost out at different stages and I think they realize how special this is to get to the last eight and represent their section,” Winter said. “They’re grounded. They’re not overconfident, but I don’t think they’re lacking confidence.”

“We can’t take (Worthington) lightly,” Winter added. “They got to state, after all.”

The winner of Thursday’s game will face the winner of top-seeded Orono and unseeded Byron at 12:30 p.m. on Wednesday, Nov. 3 at U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis.

Class AA tournament

Quarterfinals

  • 1-Orono vs. Byron, 5:30 p.m. Tuesday at Eden Prairie

  • 4-Willmar vs. 5-Worthington, 5:30 p.m. Thursday at Waconia

  • 2-Mahtomedi vs. Cloquet-Esko-Carlton, 5:30 p.m. Tuesday in Irondale

  • 3-Holy Angels vs. St. Cloud Tech, 7:30 p.m. Thursday at Monticello

Willmar vs. Worthington

Records: Willmar (17-0-2); Worthington (19-0-0)

Where: Waconia High School

When: 5:30 p.m. Thursday

Tickets: Must be purchased online at MSHSL.org/tickets

Online: Streaming on PrepSpotlight.TV/MSHSL