HASTINGS, Minn. — The Winhawks are done with the cold, but they aren’t done playing football just yet.
However many games the Winona Senior High School football team has left this season will be played in the warm confines of U.S. Bank Stadium after the Winahawks overcame freezing temperatures and several uncharacteristic turnovers in beating Simley 24-14 in the MSHSL Class AAAA state quarterfinals on Friday night on Todd Field at McNamara Stadium.
Winona (11-0), ranked fifth in the state, will play unranked Rocori (9-2) in the state semifinals at approximately 4:30 p.m. Friday, Nov. 15, in Minneapolis. It’s a rematch of a wild 2016 semifinal won 34-30 by the Winhawks.
It’s the third time in four years the Winhawks will play at U.S. Bank Stadium, though Winona is still looking for its first state championship in program history. It lost in the the state semifinals in 2017, the state finals in 2016 and lost in its other state championship game appearance in 1987 at the Metrodome.
Jackson Nibbelink rushed for two scores and threw for another one — a 69-yard scoring strike to Spencer Wright early in the second half that gave the Winhawks a 16-7 cushion.
Wright came up big on the defensive side of the ball later in the game. With Winona leading 24-14 in the fourth quarter, Wright picked off a Simley pass inside the Winona 20. After the Winhawks fumbled the ball back to Simley, Wright gave it back to the offense by recovering a Spartans fumble on the next play.
Although the Winhawks eventually punted the ball back to the Spartans, they put the game away thanks to the defense.
Simley took over in Winona territory after a short punt, but University of Wisconsin recruit Aaron Witt and Ethan Prodzinski, another lineman with Division I and II offers, recorded back-to-back sacks.
Then, a bad snap pushed Simley back even more, forcing the Spartans to punt on fourth-and-half-the-field.
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Winona never gave the ball back. Trevor Pomeroy and Nibbelink picked up enough yards on the ground to move the chains and keep the clock running, sending Winona back to the Bank.
The Winahwks, one of just seven teams in Minnesota to play in at least their fourth straight state tournament this weekend, improved to 43-4 over the last four seasons.
Nibbelink scored on touchdown runs of 12 and 4 yards, the first of which tied the game at 7-all late in the second quarter. Winona added a 30-yard field goal by Bryan Cassellius just before halftime after Bennett Heftman came up with an interception on a screen pass.
It was one of five turnovers for Simley; Winona had four of them.
A fumble by the Winhawks set up Simley’s first score, a 5-yard touchdown reception by Hope Adebayo with 40 seconds left in the first quarter. A fumble also set up Simley’s other score, a 6-yard run by Shane Prifrel late in the third quarter.
But the Winhawks’ defense, which has carried six shutouts into the fourth quarter in six games this season, wouldn’t allow any more. Trenton Langowski, who had a pick six in a section final win over Kasson-Mantorville, came up with another big interception, this time taking a possible score away from the Spartans inside the Winona 10.
Rocori, also nicknamed the Spartans, scored 35 unanswered points in a 35-7 win over Delano. Quarterback Jack Steil rushed for three touchdowns and threw for another for Rocori, which lost 36-20 to another Class AAAA state semifinalist Hutchinson earlier this season as well as Becker 14-12.
In the 2016 semifinals, Winona and Rocori combined for 11 turnovers in a game that saw four lead changes in the second half. Dan Jonsgaard’s 2-yard touchdown run gave Winona the lead with 1:21 to play, then Logan Smith picked off a pass in the end zone to seal the win for the Winhawks.
In the other Class AAAA semifinal, which will be played Thursday night, Hutchinson (11-0) will play either Chisago Lakes (5-6) or SMB (10-0), a co-op made up of players from St. Paul Academy, Minnehaha Academy and Blake. SMB is the defending Class AAAA state champion.