The puck stops here
Senior Bryton Carlson has been a key cog to Willmar Cardinals' success
WILLMAR — Senior goaltender Bryton Carlson is one of several Willmar girls hockey players with a big task Wednesday: Slow down the second-ranked Warroad Warriors.
Underrated and soft-spoken, Carlson has been a significant cog to the Cardinals’ success, which now includes the program’s first state appearance since the 2002-03 season.
Opening the day’s schedule of Class A quarterfinal games, the Cardinals take on Warroad at 11 a.m. Wednesday from the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul.
Willmar is ranked fifth in the state in scoring at 4.8 goals a game. Warroad, the defending state runner-up, is the top-scoring team at 6.4.
Carlson had a big game in Thursday’s Section 6A title game against River Lakes. After allowing the first goal of the game, Carlson senior locked down the Stars the rest of the way to tune 29 saves in the Cardinals’ 5-1 victory.
Less than a week later, Carlson will lead her team on the ice for the program’s biggest game in 17 years.
“It will be pretty awesome,” Carlson remarked. “I guess that’s something that I’ve talked about in all of the years that I’ve been here. It’s something that every team wants to do, get a chance to play at the X. It’s pretty special that we get to do that.”
Carlson admits she wasn’t much of a hockey fan growing up.
Picking up the sport as a middle-schooler, Carlson says didn’t know much about the sport until meeting some friends who played it.
As she tried out for the sport, she played a number of positions that she didn’t enjoy until settling on goalie. She enjoyed it. That’s what stuck, as did some of the characteristics of the game she witnessed from her new vintage point.
“The speed and the intensity of the game is something that caught my attention,” Carlson said. “It’s not something that’s boring to watch; the sport is always moving.”
Shortly after her introduction to the sport, Carlson was thrusted onto the big stage.
During the 2016-17 season, Carlson, then a ninth-grader, expected to be the No. 2 goalie in the lineup behind then-sophomore Savana Knutson. Knutson suffered an injury that would cost her the season, vaulting Carlson into the starting role for the entire year.
“I just remember being super nervous,” Carlson said. “It was scary. They hit a lot harder shots, but I didn’t want to let my team down. I had to work to get better that season.”
In her first game, Carlson played all 51 minutes in net and made 36 saves, but was on the wrong end of a 9-1 result at Delano/Rockford. She earned her first career victory two games later in a 5-3 home win against Austin. She finished with a 7-19-1 record as a freshman, which included a 3-1 triumph over Prairie Centre in the section playoffs. She had a .839 save percentage and a 4.89 goals-against average.
Carlson missed the entire 2017-18 season with a hip injury. The Cardinals returned Knutson that year. And when Carlson was healthy the following season, stuck with Knutson.
“It was hard,” Carlson said regarding her sophomore and junior years. “I wanted to play. It’s hard to watch, to not being able to play for your team. But I think still being able to be there with your team is something that helped me a lot and pushed me to get better as fast as I could.”
Time to shine
Heading into 2019-20, Willmar head coach Eric Setrum announced the starting goaltender spot was open. After a splitting time early in the season with ninth-grader Halle Mortenson, Carlson finally won the starting spot between the pipes.
“We said: ‘We’re going to work both of you in,’” Setrum said. “They knew at some point that if one of them takes the reins and runs with it, that’s who we are going to run with. About halfway through the season, she kind of stepped up and she’s been there ever since.”
Carlson added, “It was exciting. This is what I worked all five years for, being able to play and earn the spot that I’m at.”
In 20 appearances in the regular season and section playoffs, Carlson was 13-7 with a 3.55 goals-against average and an .885 save percentage.
“It helps a lot when you know your goalie has your back,” junior defender Tanna Christensen said. “We’re super confident. Then the defense can step up when we’re not 100 percent sure, but know that she’s got our back the whole time.”
Of the games this season, Carlson notes that a Jan. 16 meeting against Central Lakes Conference foe Alexandria was the one contest that stands out the most. Carlson collected 35 saves in Willmar’s 3-2 home victory over the perennial Class A state contender.
“It wasn’t only that I played what I thought was a pretty good game, but my team in front of me was able to help me out and play a better game.”
Growing into her position
Carlson understands her role. She’s one of the players that helps get her team focused and ready to go. Additionally, she aids and alerts the defense with its positioning.
However, there’s one item she’s had to overcome along the way: She’s awfully quiet and shy.
“My first couple years here, I didn’t talk much to them, either,” Carlson said. “But they’ve been pretty welcoming and they’re pretty nice to me.”
With more ice time she has gotten more comfortable in her role and, more importantly, with her teammates.
“She yells a lot,” junior forward Ashley Larson said with a laugh. “I hear her yelling a lot, so that helps us when we’re in the defensive zone.
“Her confidence has really grown a lot. The more practices that we do, the more confident she gets and the more that we talk to her and lift her up, the more confident she gets there as well.”
Christensen adds, “She’s really funny. She honestly is super funny. She’s very friendly with all of us and we love to have her as part of the family.”
Class A state quarterfinals
At Xcel Energy Center, St. Paul
Willmar (18-8-1) vs. No. 2 Warroad (21-4-2), 11 a.m.
Hutchinson (21-7) vs. No. 3 Cloquet-Esko-Carlton (25-3), 1 p.m.
Luverne (22-4-1) vs. No. 1 Breck (22-6), 6 p.m.
No. 4 South St. Paul (19-7-1) vs. No. 5 Rochester Lourdes (17-10), 8 p.m.