Winhawks fall in state semi-finals heartbreaker


The Winhawks suffered from some injuries during a tough state semi-finals match against Rocori. The loss was one of only five in the last four years for the team.
The Winhawks suffered from some injuries during a tough state semi-finals match against Rocori. The loss was one of only five in the last four years for the team.

It all happened so fast.

One minute, the Winona Senior High School football team was skipping into the locker room with the lead in the MSHSL Class AAAA state semifinals, another state championship game appearance within reach.

But just like that, Jack Steil and his Rocori teammates flexed their muscles, scoring three touchdowns in a total of nine offensive plays in the second half en route to a 48-24 victory on Friday evening at U.S. Bank Stadium.

The unranked Spartans (10-2) advanced to play SMB in the state championship game on Friday, November 29. The fifth-ranked Winhawks (11-1) saw their season end at U.S. Bank Stadium for the third time in four seasons.

“We didn’t make as many plays as we needed to,” said Winona coach John Cassellius, whose team had to play without two starters on the offensive and defensive line. “We did some decent things, but then we would make a mistake.”

Steil, a University of Nebraska recruit for baseball, had 19 carries for 168 yards and five rushing touchdowns, two of which came in the decisive third quarter. He was eight out of 12 passing for 134 yards as well.

“Their quarterback is a great athlete,” Cassellius said. “He does some phenomenal things. They were able to do some things that they wanted to do. He’s strong enough but quick enough that he can make somebody miss. He may have exploited some of our younger guys who had to play more than they normally do.”

The game turned in the third quarter when Rocori came out of halftime on fire, marching right down the field on its opening drive on runs of 24, 27 and 23 yards, the last of which was courtesy of Brady Linn, whose touchdown tied the game at 14-all just 30 seconds into the half. The Spartans took the lead on a one-yard run by Steil on its next possession, then took advantage of a bad snap on a Winona punt attempt to push the lead to 27-14 on a seven-yard run by Steil.

“They had some really great players on that side of the ball,” said Winona senior defensive end Aaron Witt. “They made more plays than we did.”

Winona showed some fight, however, and answered with a 32-yard field goal by Bryan Cassellius to cut the lead to 27-17 and a touchdown run by Jackson Nibbelink to get within 34-24 midway through the fourth quarter.

But both scores were answered by Steil, the first on a 17-yard touchdown scoring run where he dove into the end zone and the next on a 44-yard scamper.

The scores prevented the same wild finish the teams had in their 2016 state semifinal, which was won 34-30 by Winona following a late touchdown and interception in the end zone. This time, the game went to Rocori without much drama.

Winona was hit hard by the injury bug both before and during Friday’s game. The Winhawks were without starting center and defensive lineman Cal Brinkman, who suffered a concussion in the state quarterfinal win over Simley. He was joined on the sideline in the first quarter by another lineman, Ethan Prodzinski, who injured his ankle in the first quarter.

“Injuries are huge in high school football,” Cassellius said. “The drop off from our No. 1 to our No. 2 is significant. But we had guys fighting.”

The injury to Prodzinski, who has a preferred walk-on offer from Iowa State and interest from several Division I and II schools, came amid what seemed to be a disastrous start for the Winhawks, who fumbled on their third play of the game and threw an interception the play after losing their big lineman.

But Winona caught a break when Witt recovered a bad punt snap in the end zone to tie the game at seven-all, and the defense kept Steil bottled up for most of the first half, allowing just 121 yards of offense in the first half.

Winona took its first lead in the second quarter thanks to a 12-play, 77-yard drive that featured some crisp short passes from Nibbelink and bruising runs by Trevor Pomeroy, the school’s all-time leading rusher.

Nibbelink was the one who put it in the end zone, scoring on a 15-yard run, faking out a defender near the five-yard line then lowering the shoulder on another at the goal line for his 15th rushing touchdown of the season.

The Winhawks took that lead into halftime, turning away a promising Rocori drive that got inside the Winona 25. But the Spartans failed to convert a fourth down and Winona was able to run out the clock in the first half.

“I think we were pretty locked in on their defense,” said Nibbelink, who threw for 222 yards but had three interceptions. “We knew what we wanted to do. But turnovers played a part. I think if we don’t turn the ball over as much, it’s a different outcome.”

The loss brought to end the careers of the most successful senior class in Winona history. The Winhawks are 43-5 the last four years, with three of the losses coming at U.S. Bank Stadium. Winona was only one of seven teams in Minnesota playing in its fourth straight state championship this year.

This year’s senior class never lost a game at Paul Giel Field (21-0).

“It’s been an amazing ride with these guys,” Cassellius said. “This has been our fourth game playing here in four years. It’s just a great group of kids who have worked extremely hard. They’ve made sacrifices for each other. We talk about family quite a bit, and it’s true.”


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