The No. 2-seeded and eighth-ranked Willmar Cardinals were out for revenge after being ousted from the playoffs by Detroit Lakes last season and exacted it with an impressive offensive display 50-28 over the top-seeded, No. 3 state-ranked Lakers at Alexandria high school in the Section 8AAAA championship game.
"Last year, we underestimated DL," said Willmar’s senior quarterback Drey Dirksen. "After that loss by a point, coming into this game, we just knew we had to get revenge and that was a huge factor and what really drove us."
The Cardinals scored on all five offensive drives in the first half and never trailed in the game.
“Our offense this year has been amazing,” Dirksen said. “It’s been hard to stop us and when we’re on fire, we’re on fire. Our defense struggled a little bit but our offense picked them up and they started figuring things out and got a couple stops. We just kept scoring and that’s what put us ahead.”
Dirksen rushed 21 times for 120 yards and scored two rushing touchdowns. He was 11-19 passing for 148 yards and threw four touchdowns.
“They’re good and hard to defend,” Detroit Lakes head coach Josh Omang said. “They have a good scheme and we knew he (Dirksen) could do that and he did and we just couldn’t stop it.”
The Cardinals were playing for more than just revenge against the Lakers. Willmar ended a 30-year drought of state appearances advancing for the first time since 1988.
“We haven’t been to state in 30 years and we want to do that for Willmar and it’s a very special thing and I’m glad I could be a part of it,” said Dirksen.
Willmar led 36-21 at halftime and had a chance to put the game away early when the Cardinals kicking team forced a fumble by DL’s Isaiah Thompson on the return to give Willmar the ball at the Lakers’ 30-yard line.
Laker senior defensive back Sully Wood came up huge snatching a pass away from Willmar’s Jake Evans in the end zone for DL’s first defensive stop of the game and a big shift in momentum.
Both teams traded stalled drives and the Lakers looked to get within one score taking over on their own 25-yard line.
Quarterback Max Gunderson hit Reed Reller for 14 yards and Reed Mace for 13 yards to get near midfield. Thompson found 50 yards of open space to get to the three-yard line scoring on the next play. Braeden Wimmer’s kick cut the lead to 36-28 at the five-minute mark of the third quarter.
Mace suffered a knee injury and would not return early in the second half. Reller was down for a spell and DL was playing without a key member on defense and in the backfield Jackson Fields, who missed the game under concussion protocol. Key injuries definitely played a factor in the outcome of the game.
“Unfortunately, that’s the part of the game that nobody likes,” said Omang. “We definitely missed him (Fields). We needed a few more stops and we just couldn’t get them. Unfortunately, we got a couple guys hurt there and that just killed us. When Reed Mace got hurt it hurt us bad. Sometimes you can’t recover from those.”
Both teams punted and the Laker defense blanked Willmar in the third quarter setting up high drama in the final 12 minutes.
Dirksen stole some of that emotion as Willmar started a drive in the final minute of the quarter and moved 57 yards on four plays culminating in a nine-yard Dirksen scoring run and kicker LaBlue Moo put the Cards up 15 points 43-28 just 32-seconds into the fourth quarter.
After stopping the Lakers on a fourth down incompletion between Gunderson and Jake Bettcher at the Cardinals’ 38-yard line, Willmar did what championship teams do and killed the clock.
Dirksen led a 13-play, 62-yard drive taking the time from 8:22 to under two minutes and scoring on a 15-yard pass to Ty Roelofs to clinch the victory.
“After halftime, I feel like we lost a little bit of our energy and I could tell that after our first couple drives our line just wasn’t getting a push,” said Dirksen. “I took them aside on the sideline and said, ‘this is it; we’ve got to give it our all and they really stepped it up.’”
Both teams scored on their opening drives of the game. Dirksen hooked up with Roelofs for a 28-yard touchdown pass to cap an 11-play, 69-yard drive for a 7-0 lead.
DL opened with four straight Thompson runs before Gunderson found Mace open for a 48-yard reception and run down the Willmar sideline to tie the game at 5:34 of the first quarter.
Dirksen’s Cardinals just kept pushing toward the goal line. The senior quarterback’s one-yard touchdown run finished off another 11-play drive of 76 yards to lead 14-7 at 1:02 of the first quarter.
Willmar stopped the Lakers at the DL 40-yard line after a Caleb Owens strip of the ball from Mace on a completion that would have garnered a first down.
The next five drives between the two teams ended in touchdowns.
The Cardinals moved 67 yards on 11 plays and Alexander Wickliff scored from the four to push the lead to 21-7.
DL answered in less than two minutes on a 64-yard drive. A 32-yard pass from Gunderson to Gabe Hanninen, followed by a 24-yard Gunderson run set up Hanninen’s one-yard plunge on second down to cut the lead to 21-14 at 7:20 of the second quarter.
Two minutes later, the lead was back to 14 points when Dirksen hit Ethan Roux on a 21-yard strike to finish a five-play, 69-yard drive.
Thompson sprinted 59 yards on DL’s first play of the ensuing drive and Hanninen scored again from the one to cut the lead to 28-21 with less than four minutes until halftime.
The Lakers had Willmar facing a third-and-five at midfield and needed a stop to get the ball back and a chance to tie before the break.
Dirksen and Roelofs came up big on a 38-yard conversion to get first-and-goal at the Laker 10-yard line.
DL stiffened and forced a fourth-and-goal at the four. Willmar had kicking options with Moo’s leg, but opted to go for it. Dirksen threw a fade to Evans for six points and Roelofs converted a two-point run for a big shift in momentum and an even bigger lead 36-21, their largest of the half, with only 24 seconds left on the first half clock.
Junior Isaiah Thompson rushed 22 times for 215 yards and completed a phenomenal season as the Lakers’ all-time single season rushing leader totaling 1,672 yards this season. For his career, he has 2,634 yards on 271 attempts, which is seventh all-time and he has a season remaining. He passed former Lakers Tim Serviss, Garrett Raboin, and Chris Fossen on the top 10 all-time rushing list and finished the 2018 season just 35 yards shy of Craig Fredrickson, next on the list with 2,669 yards.
Detroit Lakes returns a healthy junior class, including the entire backfield for next year’s campaign.
“You turn into a senior quick on a night like this,” said Omang. “I fell really good about our guys and certainly our seniors. They bought in and did everything that we asked them to do.”
The Lakers finish the season with a record of 9-1, the best mark since 2014.
Willmar improves to 9-1 and will face Section 7AAAA champions No. 9 Hermantown (9-1) Friday, Nov. 9 at Monticello high school. The Hawks eliminated No. 6 Cloquet 20-14 in Duluth to advance.
WIL 14 22 0 14 - 50
DL 7 14 7 0 - 28
W - Ty Roelofs 27 pass from Drey Dirksen (LaBlue Moo kick)
DL - Reed Mace 48 pass from Max Gunderson (Braeden Wimmer kick)
W - Dirksen 1 run (Moo kick)
W - Alex Wickliff 5 run (Moo kick)
DL - Gabe Hanninen 1 run (Wimmer kick)
W - Ethan Roux 21 pass from Dirksen (Moo kick)
DL - Hanninen 1 run (Wimmer kick)
W - Jake Evans 4 pass from Dirksen (Roelofs run)
DL - Isaiah Thompson 4 run (Wimmer kick)
W - Dirksen 9 run (Moo kick)
W - Roelofs 13 pass from Dirksen (Moo kick)
First downs: 21 ... Penalties: 3-20 ... Rushing (Individual and team): Alex Wickliff 14-90, Drey Dirksen 22-128, Caleb Owens 2-7, Ethan Roux 19-94. 57-319 ... Passing (Individual and team): Dirksen 11-19-186-1 ... Receiving (Individual and team): Jake Evans 3-20, Ty Roelofs 4-110, Ryan Slette 2-12, Roux 2-44 ... Interceptions: None ... Fumble recoveries: Matt Bengtson ... Tackles (solo-assist): Charlie Farhat 1-7, Kadin Larsson 6-3, Roelofs 3-4, Ben Hisken 2-2, Andrew Reigstad 1-3, Owens 0-5 ... QB sacks: Carter Ochsendorf 1, Tyler Vlaminck 1.
First downs: 14 ... Penalties: 1-2 ... Rushing (Individual and team): Gabe Hanninen 6-13, Max Gunderson 6-15, Reed Mace 1-4, Isaiah Thompson 22-215. 35-247 ... Passing (Individual and team): Gunderson 6-11-136-0 ... Receiving (Individual and team): Mace 2-60, Hanninen 2-57, Reed Reller 2-19 ... Interceptions: Thompson 1 ... Fumble recoveries: None ... Tackles (solo-assist): Brady Morris 7-0, William Green 6-1, Hanninen 6-0, Caleb Tangen 6-0, Charles Barnett 5-0 ... QB sacks: Noah Olds 1, Noah Steffl 1.
(Game stats courtesy Joe Brown of the Willmar Tribune)