After graduating a historic senior class that saw seven earn college football scholarships, Winona Senior High football coach John Cassellius already knew this season would look much different.
Then came the COVID-19 pandemic.
A summer often filled with team workouts and camps became limited to individual workouts and a little bit of 7-on-7.
Then came the initial decision from the Minnesota High School League on Aug. 17 that moved football — as well as volleyball — to the spring. On Sept. 21, they reversed that decision, moving the two most attended sports back to the fall. With the first game of a six-game season scheduled for Oct. 9, it gave the Winhawks just 18 days to get ready for Friday’s season opener against Austin.
“We are treading water, trying not to get drowned,” Cassellius said, “just because everything has to be done in a condensed time. Normally we would have two weeks, then a scrimmage and have another week, plus you have the summer to do things. But when you’re told you’re not going to have it, then you — not that you let stuff go — but it’s like, ‘OK, that’s not important. I can wait on that. I don’t need to order this.’ Then it became order everything, get everything organized. A lot of the little things like ordering footballs. Footballs are backordered for three months.”
In fact, according to Cassellius it will take the Winhawks until Week 5 this season to get as many hours of practice they typically would have before their first game of the season. Cassellius credited his experienced coaching staff with helping make these past few weeks a bit easier, but still, it’s been a grind.
“It’s been really tough,” senior offensive lineman Jack Thompson said. “We’ve definitely had to push it, especially with the lack of two-a-days. That’s when you really get your body into shape. These last few weeks are supposed to be preparing your mind and kind of polishing everything up. But we’ve had to work harder, and keep our minds straight as well at the same time. So it’s definitely been tough.”
Of course, Friday night lights will look much different this year. Attendance is capped at 250 total with each team allowed 125 tickets for each player to bring up to two family members. Home games will be livestreamed on the Winona Senior High website and its YouTube page.
The capped attendance means no student section or marching band. The Winona Senior High band will have a pregame show at the track and field throwing area at Paul Giel Field, but will not be allowed to play at the games, according to band director Tim Gleason. For the most part, though, there seems to be a general consensus that the Winhawks prefer the opportunity to play now instead of in the spring.
“They’re excited to play football,” Cassellius said. “They just want to be kids. They want some sense of normalcy back. Normal in a sense of normal, because it’s not the same.”
It’s a tough situation the Winhawks find themselves in, but Cassellius reiterated that teams across the state would be going through the same scenario. But most teams don’t have to replace the amount of talent like the Winhawks.
Nearly the entire offensive line graduated, including four in Bennett Heftman (MSU-Moorhead), Garit Wollan (Winona State), Ethan Prodzinski (MSU-Mankato) and Aaron Witt (Wisconsin) that are playing in college. Gone, too, is quarterback Jackson Nibbelink and top wide receiver Dayne Gamoke, who look to now connect on passes together at Northern State. So is the all-time leading rusher in school history in Trevor Pomeroy and a middle linebacker in Sam Kanne — who is playing at Bemidji State as a fullback — that was third in school history in career tackles.
That’s also not mentioning the graduation of receivers Spencer Wright and Austin Mlynczak. All were obviously vital in helping the Winhawks make four straight MSHSL Class AAAA state tournaments. They will be missed, but this year’s group is ready to show what they can do.
“We look at it like this is a whole different team,” senior standout Trent Langowski said. “Those seniors led our program for two or three years. I think it’s a new page in Winhawk football. We are really excited to show people what we can do. I know there are a lot of people that won’t take us how we have been the past couple of years. Even for me personally, I’m excited to show people what we can do even after we lost all those players.
“I think we are going to surprise some people this year.”
The Winhawks still have plenty of talent.
Expect Langowski to see plenty of action on both sides of the ball, playing at both defensive back and receiver. Sophomore Bryan Cassellius is expected to breakout at tight end, and the Winhawks are comfortable with the running back duo of senior Colton Beier and sophomore Dominic Davis. At quarterback, junior Jacob Heftman will be the starter after being Nibbelink’s backup last season. He will be behind an offensive line that returns just one starter in Thompson, but they do get a boost in the return of senior Jackson Cichosz, who is back after missing last year with a torn ACL suffered playing lacrosse as a sophomore. Sophomore offensive lineman Wes Wollan is also expected to take a leap forward this season. In all, the faces might look different, but at the end of the day the expectations remain the same.
“I think we’ll be good,” Langowski said. “We just have to keep practicing hard and get into the playbook.
It’s anyone’s guess how Friday’s game against Austin will go, but the Winhawks will be ready to the best of their ability.
“The kids are excited to play, the coaches are excited to see the kids play,” Cassellius said. “What that will look like, what everybody will look like, it’ll just be interesting. We’ve tried to get our kids ready with trying to practice specials every single day to get them lots of reps, but I’m sure we are going to have to take a timeout because we are missing a kid.
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