Mar. 17—WILLMAR — Playoff time has arrived again and in girls hockey, the Willmar Cardinals have as good a chance as any to make it back state.
The defending Section 6A champion enters the section tournament as the top seed, earning it a first-round bye and home-ice advantage until the state tournament. The Cardinals are host to either No. 4 Northern Lakes or No. 5 Prairie Centre at 7 p.m. Thursday.
Whomever the opponent coming into the Willmar Civic Center may be, it'll likely have Bailey Olson towards the top of players it needs to contain.
The problem that opponent probably finds is this: Very few teams have had any success slowing the Cards captain down.
The senior forward is tied with Edina's Emma Conner for second in the state with 29 goals, according to the Minnesota Girls Hockey Hub. Olson is also 10th with 46 total points. She has recorded a point in 15 of 18 games this season.
Olson's biggest highlight so far came when she collected her 200th career point with a second-period assist during Willmar's 5-2 at Marshall on March 4. Yet, Olson views her individual moment as more of a team accomplishment.
"It was exciting," Olson recalled. "I like that it was on an assist knowing I only got to 200 because my teammates were there to help me get all those points."
Olson is far and away the Cardinals' all-time leader in points. However, there's more to the University of Wisconsin-River Falls commit than her production.
Olson and her relationship with hockey wasn't love at first sight. In fact, it wasn't her favorite activity on the ice at a young age.
She was a figure skater in her early years. Olson didn't plan on changing that even after her father approached her about playing hockey when she was in the second grade. She initially declined to pick up a hockey stick and gloves, but when she was told that a fellow cousin played the sport, it was enough for Olson to give it a try..
"My cousin was my idol, so I was like 'yeah, I'll do it,' Olson said. "Ever since then I just loved the sport."
The family affair on the ice continued when the forward was in middle school. As a seventh-grader, Olson made it to the Cardinals varsity team. That opened an opportunity to play alongside her older sister, Sydney. The two wore the Willmar sweater together for four seasons before Sydney graduated in 2019.
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"It was super nice to have her there, especially being super young and knowing that if I ever needed anything, she'd be there for me," Bailey Olson said. "She was a defenseman, so she would tell me all the things that defensemen don't like. .... It was nice having her to give me insight on different positions, then using that to my advantage."
She finished fifth on the team in points (1 G, 5 A) in 26 games during her first season. At that time, Willmar coaches generally didn't place seventh-graders on varsity, but Olson used that as fuel to show that she belonged.
"I wanted to prove them wrong," Olson said. "Once I did get on varsity, that really showed me I could accomplish anything I put my mind to in this sport."
Current teammates Tanna Christensen, Madison Garberding and Audrey Swart joined Olson on the roster as seventh-graders on the 2015-16 varsity team.
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Willmar could only muster four wins in Olson's first varsity season. But as she got better, so did the team's record.
The Cardinals' win total increased every season, from seven in 2016-17 to 18 in 2019-20. At the same rate, the forward's goal-scoring, assists and point totals bumped up.
Olson led the team outright in every offensive category for the first time as a sophomore when she put up 40 points (18 G, 22 A). Head coach Eric Setrum believes that was the season when opposing teams took notice.
"You could just see that she was at a different level," Setrum said. "She's always been very talented, had the ability to score and see the ice, but halfway through her sophomore year is when she really started to click as far as being one of our dominant players."
Olson compiled her best season as a junior when she produced 72 points (40G, 32 A). After her monster year concluded, she was chosen to compete at the 2020 U18 Festival. Following her performance during the three-day showcase, Olson was selected to Minnesota's U18 team for the CCM National Invitational Tournament. She was unable to participate as COVID halted play last spring.
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Her improvement didn't come by accident.
"Some players just love to compete and don't mind the work that it takes to get to the next level. And she's one of those girls," Setrum said. "She's always working to get better and isn't afraid to try new things or get out of her comfort zone. She pushes herself and pushes her teammates.
"Bailey has always been a leader, especially in that age group. She came up so young, but girls have looked up to her since she got here. They really thrive off her success and her leadership."
Bailey and Garb
Garberding is second in program history with 149 points. Her hockey journey began when she was in the third grade. That's when she played with Olson for the first time.
Together, they've amassed the two most productive careers in Cardinals program history.
Last season, the duo led Willmar to its first state-tournament appearance in 17 years.
Garb, as she is nicknamed, has been linked to Olson through a decade of friendship. She's also as a good a person as any to explain how Olson's talent extends beyond the stat sheet.
"She never swears. She's always super calm and collected, always nice and willing to help anyone out," Garberding said of Olson. "People just don't really see her love for her teammates, from the last person on (junior varsity) that plays to me. Everyone counts and everyone matters, and she brings the team together."
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Through the years, the two have mostly done their damage on different lines. However, with this season came a change.
Each player, separately and unknowingly, approached Setrum with the idea of joining forces on the team's top line. Setrum agreed and the decision has paid dividends.
Olson, Garberding and junior Kessa Mara, the third forward on the top line, have accounted for 73% of the team's scoring and 55% percent of its points.
"There've been some struggles and jealousy over the couple of years we've played together. The puck doesn't get passed and people's feelings get hurt, but we've both become more mature," Garberding said. "This whole year has been my (favorite) memory because this whole year we've made some good things happen."
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Olson added: "The thing I love about Garb is that we do a lot of summer ice together, so we get to see each other all the time. We've gotten super close and I think it's reflecting that this year with how we're playing; passing the puck to each other knowing that the other one is going to put it away and relying on each other."
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When Olson reached the magic number of 200, it came on a Garberding goal. With Garberding on the verge point No. 150, don't be surprised if Olson is the one to help her bring it home.