It wasn’t the prettiest or the fanciest of wins, but the Winona Senior High football team sits at 1-0 as they enter Friday’s showdown against Byron.
The offense struggled at times in the season-opening victory over Austin. That was expected, considering the Winhawks lost 80% of their starting offensive line, their quarterback, the school’s all-time leading rusher and their leading receiver from last year. That group also played a key part defensively. Then factor in, too, that the Winhawks had less than three weeks of practice before their first game to figure out all these moving parts.
That’s why the season opener looked the way it did, with the Winhawks struggling a bit with pre-snap penalties and tackling. They are confident they can shore up those little mistakes moving forward, starting with the Bears at 7 p.m. Friday.
“It’s just mental errors on both sides of the ball,” quarterback Jacob Heftman said. “They can easily be fixed. We just have to look at the film and fix those little mistakes and become a better football team.”
Heftman had a bit of an up-and-down first varsity start but made plays when it mattered the most, like his 54-yard touchdown pass to Trent Langowski in the second half, which proved to be the game-winner. It was an impressive throw considering the right-handed Heftman was rolling to his left before fitting a pass into tight coverage to Langowski, who did the rest. For the game, Heftman completed 6 of 14 passes for 159 yards and two touchdowns.
“It was gritty, it was gutsy,” coach John Cassellius said of Heftman’s performance. “He made some nice throws, made a few mistakes. That’s the stuff you would expect. And you want him to learn from the positive and the negative, and I think he did that. He made mistakes, and we were able to have conversations and when he made big plays we were able to celebrate with him. I think it was just a great first game for him.”
Cassellius was also happy with the way the offensive line played despite so many new faces. Although they might not have the name recognition like an Aaron Witt or an Ethan Prodzinski, they proved capable of getting the job done. They protected well, and it seems they have potential in the run game, especially with sophomore running back Dominic Davis, who rushed for 59 yards on 13 carries against Austin. Davis did lose a fumble, but he will be someone to watch moving forward, as he packs a powerful punch for the Winhawks.
“I really loved the communication of our guys,” Cassellius said. “I felt like our offensive line was on the same page, and I think that’s probably the most important thing is making sure all five or six or seven are stepping together, blocking the same and all that stuff. That to me is super exciting and then obviously, too, leaders up there stepping up and helping out the young guys. It was just great to see, and they are going to continue to improve every week.”
What the Winhawks were disappointed with was their tackling.
There were simply too many missed tackles that led to big plays for Austin, especially in the first half.
“We talked at halftime like, ‘Hey guys, think about every time you make a tackle it’s like the popsicle at practice. We want you to wrap up and drive.’” Cassellius said. “And there were definitely some times we stood some guys up and rallied the troops to help make a play. I was proud of them with how they responded defensively with their tackling.”
The Winhawks proved that when they buckle down, they can be successful. They stopped Austin three times inside their own 35. They will need to be sharp against Byron — which is coming off a 59-0 drubbing of Albert Lea on Saturday. They have a talented running back in Minnesota-Duluth commit Austin Freerksen, as he ran for 198 yards and four touchdowns in the season opener.
It will be tough test, but the Winhawks are eager to continue to prove to people that they are still a force to be reckoned with.
“I think we made a statement to other teams that we’re going to play this year that we’re the same team we have been for the past four or five years,” Langowski said. “And we’re ready to play whenever.”
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