Stellar football season recalls 1987 team’s triumphs
by BEN MCLEOD
With the 2017 Winhawk varsity football team already holding the Big 9 Section title for the year, preparing to face Kasson-Mantorville for the quarter-final on Friday, fans have begun to discuss the last time the ‘Hawks were in this position. It was exactly 30 years ago, in 1987, when Winona last clinched the Big 9, and went all the way to take first runner-up for State at the Metrodome. A team can have a good season, but when an undefeated club begins building momentum, fans start to look back for parallels.
In fall 1987, the nation weathered Black Monday, and waited to see if rescuers in Texas could save infant Jessica McClure from a deep well. Hillary Duff, Zac Efron and future Seahawk Bruce Irvin were born. “Full Metal Jacket” was in theaters, Pope John Paul II made his first visit to the U.S., and Starbucks opened its first locations outside Seattle. Kwik Trip was selling a loaf of bread for 29 cents and three candy bars for 99 cents. Winona Mayor Tom Slaggie had just won reelection, the 12th annual Victorian Fair had just closed and the Polish Museum was ramping up for its kielbasa competition. And while none of the current team was even alive during the Winhawks 1987 run, it was not so long ago that long-time Winona boosters have forgotten. Jeremy Graves, librarian and current assistant coach for the Winhawks, has one of the distinctive orange and black “Herkey Hankies” hanging in the window of his office in the Winona Senior High media center. He remembers attending one of the home games in 1987, even though he was only five years old. And the coach of that historic team, Bob Urness, can still recall it all — stats, specific plays, and the later careers of some of the team’s players.
Urness, who still provides commentary for Winona State games for HBC, is certainly following the current team, but he has no advice or warnings for the senior high’s current head coach, John Cassellius. He doesn’t see the point. “They’re doing an amazing job.” The way the game is played at the state level has changed since his time. “They’ve got freshman teams, sophomore teams; we had 37 players. We had seven players who played both ways.”
A two-hour recap of the 1987 season, produced by the former Studio 6 and Alan Light, which is available online, is a captivating and detailed watch. With plenty of both game footage and interviews, “It’s A Long Way Up” follows the early practices and game highlights, and includes plenty of pragmatic, conservative predictions from Coach Urness. When asked directly if his team would win Big 9, he said “Oh, I don’t know ... we’re going to play one game at a time.” His philosophy was a heads-down approach, focused only on the next opponent. After a satisfying 41-12 win against the Rochester Spartans, Urness said “We weren’t real flashy out there tonight.” But as the season progressed, he couldn’t avoid being caught up in the thrill of an undefeated season. After a challenging win against the Rosemont Irish and their complex “hurry-up offense,” Urness was “at a loss for words,” crediting Winona’s defensive line. But even at 11-0 for the season, and a breathtaking 22 points in the final three minutes, 22 seconds, Coach Urness stuck to his “one game at a time, back to practice Monday” strategy, a strategy that ultimately took the Winhawks to their first ever Minnesota State High School League Class AA State Tournament. In their next meet-up against the Burnsville Braves, Coach Urness praised the ‘Hawks’ defense as “awesome,” and called it “the best game we’ve played all year.”
The final game of the 1987 Winhawks season, meeting the Moorhead Spuds in the Metrodome, was played up to a razor-thin margin right into the final seconds. Winona, plagued by unexpected heat on the field, wouldn’t admit defeat until the “final” sign lit up under the 7-13 score. “To this day I haven’t watched that entire game,” says Urness.
But with a 12-game undefeated streak, Winona had nothing to be down about. Both Urness and his assistant coach Marv “Gundy” Gunderson were inducted into the Winona Senior High Hall of Fame. Gunderson led Urness’ own team in 1965. “I still call him ‘coach.’”
It’s easy to see other players from 1987 who would wind up in the Hall of Fame: Paul Klinger, with number-one all-time career rushing yards (2,184); Jay Yahnke, who went on to honors as an all-state player; and Joel Staats, who finished with a Prep Bowl record 23 tackles. Other standouts from the team include brothers Tom (QB) and David (OE) Boone, aka the “Boone to Boone Connection,” a reliable passing/running family act.
The presence of successive generations on both teams is another echo from 1987 to 2017. Tailback Scott Heftman who ran 211 rushes for a total of 1,118 yards in the season is the uncle of current standout Winhawk players Bennett and Bryce Heftman, said Urness. Some of the old players have moved away, some have passed on, and others are still in the region. “Jay Yahnke is a dentist in La Crosse. ‘Yank’ is not a good name for a dentist,” Urness laughed. The coach and team together experienced a season they will never forget, and even if the 2017 team never ran another play, they’ll have a bond that will last the rest of their lives.
Coach Urness has full confidence in the current Winhawks — “They’ve got so many weapons!” But he didn’t plan to be at Saturday’s game against Red Wing, chalking it up to a done deal. “It’s going to be a blow-out,” he accurately predicted. He is certain that there will be more chances for him to watch this current team in action. There are no conservative predictions in 2017. “We will win state champ.”