WILLMAR — With three weeks to go before the postseason gets underway, the Willmar girls tennis team is gearing up for a strong second half of the regular season.

After opening Central Lakes Conference play at 4-0, the Cardinals took back-to-back losses this week to St. Cloud and Brainerd.

But, that strong start to the CLC season has Willmar feeling confident heading into the final stretch. On Saturday, the Cardinals head to Big Lake for a quadrangular. Other teams include Alexandria and Roseau.

“They’re working really hard and I think we’re becoming a cohesive team and starting to dig in,” said Cardinals head coach Amy Morrell. “We can hang with all of ‘em, I think. And I think we’re going to have a strong second half.”

The opening to the 2021 season had plenty of growing pains for the Cardinals, including a seventh-place showing in a Pine City tournament along with losses to Litchfield (7-0), Minnewaska (5-2), and Virginia (4-3) at a quadrangular in Litchfield.

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Willmar's Alise Staebell takes a swing at the ball during a No. 1 doubles match with teammate Ashlie Staebell during a Central Lakes Conference match against St. Cloud on Tuesday, Sept. 14, 2021 at Willmar High School. 

Joe Brown / West Central Tribune
Willmar's Alise Staebell takes a swing at the ball during a No. 1 doubles match with teammate Ashlie Staebell during a Central Lakes Conference match against St. Cloud on Tuesday, Sept. 14, 2021 at Willmar High School. Joe Brown / West Central Tribune

“We played the maximum amount of matches that were allowed and that was key,” Morrell said. “Match play is the only way people get good and we really capitalized on that early to get us ready.”

Gone were seniors from 2020 like Alyssa Morrell, Ashley Pitzen and Rebecca Laurence. That led to some worry amongst players.

“We lost a few seniors last year,” said Willmar senior Lizzie Eide, “so on the bus, we’d talk about how to make up for it.”

But with wins over Alexandria (4-3 and 5-2), Fergus Falls (4-3) and Rocori (4-3), things have started to take shape for the Cardinals.

“Team bonding is really big. They’re cheering out there for each other,” Amy said. “We got good leadership from our captains: Kessa Mara (sr.), Caroline Becker (sr.) and Kylee Berget. Those three have shown unbelievable leadership and I think that’s really helped our team.”

On the court, that’s made for a supportive, boisterous group of players.

“We cheer (the younger players) on and try to give them as much support as they give us,” Berget said.

Eide added, “and if one team is excited, it hypes up everyone else on the courts all around us. It helps lift everyone up.”

Before Section 8AA play begins on Oct. 7, the coaches and players have some ideas on how to come on strong.

“We’re going to fine-tune some of our doubles strategy and start to gain some more finesse in our play,” Amy said. “Those are our goals here for the second half.”

Willmar's Allison Bruhn returns the ball while playing No. 2 singles during a Central Lakes Conference match against St. Cloud on Tuesday, Sept. 14, 2021 at Willmar High School. 

Joe Brown / West Central Tribune
Willmar's Allison Bruhn returns the ball while playing No. 2 singles during a Central Lakes Conference match against St. Cloud on Tuesday, Sept. 14, 2021 at Willmar High School. Joe Brown / West Central Tribune