Believe it or not, Willmar wrestling is good again. I know, stunning stuff. They are off to a powerful start, worthy of their No. 5 ranking by The Guillotine, and maybe deserving of an even higher ranking, but hey, I don't get a vote. The Cardinals have won both of the individual tournaments they've participated in and also politely dominated in their lone dual of the season so far, a 63-6 win over Rocori.
There's no doubt the road will get tougher in the quest for a seventh-straight trip to the Class AAA state tournament, but there's still plenty to take from Willmar's winning start.
More pins than a clothesline
Winning by fall is so much cooler than it sounds, especially the way a bunch of Cardinals have been doing it so far this year. Cael Carlson, a junior wrestling at 145 pounds so far this year, has been a pinning machine. He's 6-0 so far with six pins, totaling just 10 minutes, 49 seconds on the mat, not even the equivalent of two full-length matches. The craziest part of that stat is that's not even the best on this own team. Fellow junior Lincoln Shinn has been flattening opponents with impunity, winning all six of his matches by pins in a total of only eight minutes, 28 seconds.
Andrew Reigstad also has six pins and a 7-1 record while Clay Carlson isn't far behind with a 6-0 record and five pins.
Winning by pins is a way of life for the Cardinals so far. Combined, Willmar has a 91-34 record across all of its individuals and 59 pins.
"The guys have looked really good so far this year," said Willmar head coach Ed Oehlers. "It's an exciting time. There has been so much prep work but these guys are showing that they can adjust on the fly, too. We'll hit some bumps but our key is to have focus and high aspirations. These guys have their individual goals and that can help our team out, too."
Wait, there's another one?
Caden Carlson wrestled a bit at the varsity level last year but he's stepping into a primary option at 106 pounds for the Cardinals. He's off to a 7-0 record with four pins, nearly eclipsing his win total (10) from last year through just the first few weeks of the season.
Clay, his cousin, says the whole Willmar team is like a family to him. That's been the case for awhile for Clay, wrestling with Cael, his cousin, as well as his brother and 2016 Willmar graduate, Colten. Cael now gets the experience of wrestling with his brother on the team as Caden makes his mark at the beginning of Willmar's lineup.
"Wrestling with Clay, and Colton obviously was my cousin, and that's been fun but it's pretty cool to have (Caden) here," Cael said. "It's a lot of fun to see him up with the big dogs. He's with a bunch of those little guys, they're really turning a corner this year."
Three No. 1s
Caden has set the tone for Willmar this year but cousin Clay and brother Cael are still among the heaviest hitters in the state, if not literally.
Clay and Cael are both the top-ranked Minnesota wrestlers in their weight class, according to the Guillotine's rankings published Dec. 8, as is Israel Navarro. It's not too surprising considering they all took home second-place finishes at the Class AAA state individual tournament last year. But they don't think too much about their rankings.
"A lot of people are more worried about rankings than wrestling," Cael said.
Clay takes it a step further.
"If you're just paying attention to the rankings you can come in very underprepared," Clay said. "You might think that he'll be easier because he's ranked lower or not even ranked at all. That doesn't mean they aren't good and can't beat you. Rankings are just popularity contests. It's nice to be the dark horse."
Last year's second-place finishes certainly stuck with the folks making the rankings and for the trio of Cael, Clay, and Navarro, it also sticks with them, just in a different way.
"I've replayed that takedown and that match probably 50 times, 100 times," said Cael, who also finished second in 2016. "I always felt mentally tough enough but I've been working on mat strategy with my dad so that doesn't happen again. I'll wake up and have a work out at 5 a.m. before school. I don't want to see somebody else's hand get raised again."
Clay is a senior this year and looking to cap his senior season with a championship the way his brother, Colten, did.
"I've thought of that match so many times, I've literally dreamt of times I did one thing different and ended up winning," said Clay who, like Cael, lost by a 3-2 decision. "It's kind of torture."
Some might say Navarro is the appetizer to the Carlsons, though others might say Navarro is the whole meal.
He took third place in 2016 after losing to eventual champion Patrick McKee of St. Michael-Albertville, and he lost to the University of Minnesota-bound wrestler in the championship match in 2017.
But Navarro has been consistently one of the more athletic wrestlers in the state for some time. With all that in mind, his 4-2 start to this season comes as a big surprise.
The easy explanation for the slow start is weight. Navarro, who wrestled at the 120-pound weight class at last year's state tournament, has been competing at the 152-pound weight class so far this season. In the Guillotine's rankings he's the No. 1 wrestler for 132 pounds and that would bring the Cardinals back to the stretch-of-death with Navarro, Cael and Clay.
"Ideally, we want him underneath the Carlsons in the lineup," Oehlers said. "But if he can't get there, then we'll shuffle things around."
Navarro falls well short of the 152 pound limit but not far enough to make the 132-pound mark, though he says he should be there by the time the Cardinals take on St. Cloud Tech on Dec. 22.
"It's hard taking on the bigger guys," Navarro said. "They've been able to overpower me. But I'll be back down for the next weigh-in and ready to go."