Dean Mackenzie (#79) attempted two tackles during Friday’s match-up with the Academy of Holy Angels.
by BEN MCLEOD
A contest isn’t exciting if there’s nothing at stake. The further a team goes, the higher the tension becomes. The thrill of following a team all the way to the semifinals is based on the unavoidable fact that any game, any play, could be the end of the run. And with high school sports, this can literally mean that, as the year’s play nears the end and some players will be graduating, any game can be the last game that a team plays together. The 2017 Winona Winhawks had a triumphant, undefeated season that took them all the way to the Class 4A semifinals, a season to be proud of, a season every player will remember. But in the last seconds of that last game, when victory has slipped out of reach, the rest of the autumn falls away, and it was with resigned exhaustion that the ‘Hawks lined up to shake hands with the Academy of Holy Angels Stars, who defeated Winona 26-22 and will go on to meet the Cloquet Lumberjacks on Friday, November 11.
There was no time for slacking or “good enough” on Thursday, as the two teams met in the U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis on Thursday. Each team took the other very seriously. Winona’s Head Coach John Cassellius called the Angels “a great team.” “I wish them nothing but the best of luck. We looked at them and said you can play a team 10 times, and win six and lose four. You get four teams that are really, really good; if you make a mistake they take it and run with it.” And it was the details and the little mistakes that built up over those four periods, to squeak the Angels through on one of Winona’s tightest margins of the year.
The entire Angels team took to the field with matching dyed-blonde hair, winning the coin toss but deferring to Winona. Winona pillars Riley Bosteter, Robert Warren, Dakota Matthees and Terrell Hall mounted a short drive out of the gate but a Warren fumble at the Stars eight-yard line gave over possession, followed right away for an encroachment penalty against Winona, one of the early mistakes the Angels exploited. Six first downs later, with 30 yards from Stars halfback Thomas Shelstad alone, the Angel’s prime weapon, Joseph Heimbold (#9) ran in 10 yards for the first TD of the game.
The Holy Angels had done the research and knew who they were up against. They kept the sides zipped up tight, forcing Warren and Hall to struggle for yardage as they kept meeting well-placed defense, funneling them into the Star’s snares. Bosteter finally found Matthees for a 39-yard pass, but a slippery bomb evaded Terrell Hall at the endzone, as he began a game-long feud with Star’s Keontay Shorter, who would plague Hall all night long. But Winona defense wasn’t asleep at the wheel, and Hall, Nick Fratzke and Sam Kanne kept the Stars from scoring again in the first.
Winona’s Kanne and Fratzke brought weeping to the Holy Angels, Kanne making 8-15 tackles and Fratzke 6-12. Nick Waldo made 5-6, seeming to pop up in all the worst places for the Stars offense, including taking out the nimble Shorter for a possession. Bosteter finally got the ball to Dakota Matthees for a 38-yard gain to the Stars end, allowing Dan Jonsgaard to fall into a 1-yard touchdown to tie at 6:04 in the second quarter. But after three more swaps for possession, Stars Shelstad zipped around Jonsgaard at the 4 for another goal with the conversion blocked, bringing the game to 7-13. Winona began another long drive at 1:30 in the second quarter, including three first downs from Terrell Hall. But after two Winona time-outs, the quarter ended with Bosteter getting the sack from the Stars Alex Gillard, putting the wrap on the first half.
A sack at the start of the third saw Heimbold limp off the field, to be temporarily replaced by Shelstad as QB. Heimbold returned for a high snap to Shorter, which looked like a third touchdown for the Holy Angels but a holding call brought them back to Winona’s 23-yard line. Then Heimbold managed to run in a 13-yard score, with another blocked conversion for 7-19. Another drive commenced for Winona, Bosteter running 35 yards in that drive alone of his 60 total for the game, Terrell Hall coming out on top of Shorter to save a Bosteter pass, concluding with Dan Jonsgaard’s second score of the game with a 4-yard touchdown and the extra point from the inevitable Josh Bade. The injured Winhawk Robert Warren also ran in the drive, but limped off angrily after a four-yard gain.
The Winhawks quickly regained possession early in the fourth as Sam Kanne picked up a tip at Winona’s 23. A run-down and frustrated-looking Robert Warren had another chance and ran for 13 at the start of the fourth with a one-yard loss, as he and Bosteter swapped out their passing game for running. The strategies and stress ramped up, as the ‘Hawks spun, faked and juggled through four first downs. There wasn’t much joy, but an excess of tension as the clock ran down, until Ethan Ringo snagged a desperate pass from an under-pressure Bosteter and ran down a 31-yard touchdown, serenaded by frenzied Winhawks fans. A Bosteter/Warren two-point-conversion took the board to 22-19 at 7:35, and Winonans wondered if it was safe to breathe yet ... but the margin was just too close. The next possession for the Stars turned into a drive ... as the Stars seemed to give up on passing, choosing instead to go head-down right through the line, ultimately allowing Heimbold to blast through the ‘Hawks defense for a 23-yard gain and the final touchdown of the game at 3:50. A final possession saw the Winhawks fight as hard as they’ve fought all year, in the last few minutes of play. But a Bosteter-Hall pass into the Holy Angels zone was intercepted at the Stars 5-yard line, once again, by Keontay Shorter, and the writing was on the wall. The Winhawks used their last two time-outs, desperate to locate a way out of the 22-26 hole, but it was a done deal.
A thoughtful coach Cassellius was contemplative about the game. “Our kids played hard.” The transition from the unpredictable elements of outdoor games to a windless, floodlit indoor stadium can be disruptive, but Cassellius said “our kids did a good job of preparing ... Going from ten degrees and a 20-mph wind ... you can’t replicate that.” This year’s senior players will be gone next year, and naturally he will miss so many strong players. “Matthees, Warren, Bosteter, Waldo is hard to block... Heftman, Jonsgaard, Logan, Fratzke ... all those seniors, and all that they bring to the table. It’s not one guy, two guys.” On Warren, who started the season strong but was nagged by an injury late in the season, Cassellius said “he wasn’t 100 percent. But he showed a compassion, a real love for the game.”
He isn’t scared of a weak bench in 2018. “Terrell Hall is a junior, he plays both ways; Aaron Witt, Bennet Heftman, Trevor Pomeroy, Sam Kanne, Cal Brinkman; Ethan Ringo did great things ... Jonah Boelter got a little banged up, but he showed what football means to his family ... and we create a family, here.” Cassellius looks forward to more time with his other family. “My kids are at that age when I’ve got to do a lot more chasing around. There’s always more to do.”