by CHRIS ROGERS
High school student-athletes are back on the field and the court this week. After limitations last fall due to the pandemic, hopes are high for a more normal season, though that, too, is up in the air. Meanwhile, changes to the state high school league will give many Winona teams a better chance to compete this fall.
At the Winhawks football team’s first practice of the season, coaches were drilling wide receivers on how to sell their jukes and linemen on how to react to their opponents. “We had a good summer,” Head Coach John Cassellius said. “It was a little bit more normal than last year,” he added. Cassellius noted that the team was able to hold a group camp at Winona State and weight lift as a team, whereas last year they had to train in small groups for COVID safety. “It’s a little bit more enjoyable when there’s a few more kids in the room,” he said.
With talented players in a variety of positions returning to the team this fall and some underclassmen who were able to get playing time last year, Cassellius’ Winhawks will benefit from a crucial asset: experience. “When you get a bit of experience, that’s huge,” he said.
Winhawks Volleyball Head Coach Amber Mlynczak was similarly enthused about the veterans on her squad, while also having some open slots that younger athletes are vying to fill. “I have a dedicated group of returning seniors that have some big goals for the season,” she told the Post. “We will be very strong defensively, and will be looking to replace a number of graduates in key positions. We will have a number of players competing for positions, and that creates a high level of play in the gym that I am looking forward to.”
There is another reason for the volleyball coach to be excited. This year, high school volleyball, soccer, cross country, and track in Minnesota will move from having three divisions to four. In the past, Winona had to compete in the top division with some of the largest schools in the state — some more than twice Winona’s size, WAPS Athletic Director Casey Indra explained. Now Winona will be in the second-highest grouping, and the balance should be more even. “They’re playing schools that they know they can be competitive with,” Indra said.
“I believe that this is long overdue in the Minnesota volleyball world,” Mlynczak stated. “We are very excited about it as it feels like it levels the playing field a bit. We will continue to compete against a tough section, but we are ready for the change.”
As for COVID protocols, WAPS student-athletes will start their fall season with comparatively fewer restrictions in place. WAPS will require masks indoors, and federal regulations require masks on school buses, but, currently, there are none of last fall’s limits on crowd size or abbreviated schedules. However, with infections rising, that could change.
“If I only had a crystal ball, I would be rich beyond belief right now,” Indra joked when asked if this would be a more normal season. “There’s some big decisions coming up,” he noted.
“I am hopeful for a mostly normal season,” Mlynczak said. “I know that the team will handle whatever is thrown at us with grace … Kids are resilient and adapt well to change. They are most excited to be in the gym with their teammates, and I hope we can keep that as normal as possible.
“We’re just kind of waiting for direction,” Cassellius echoed. “If comes to having to wear masks one day and not having to the next, we’re just to be ready to deal it,” he continued. “You’ve got to deal with adversity and this is a form of adversity,” he added.
Indra agreed. “We all realized [last year] we could do things differently,” he said. “We all realized change is not a bad thing when it comes to kids and keeping them safe. We did it last year, and we can do it this year.”
WAPS’ first home games of the year begin on August 26.