Winona vs K-M Football

Winona High senior Sam Kanne carries a Winhawks flag onto the field before the Section 1AAAA football championship game last Friday at Rochester Mayo High School. The Winhawks face Simley in the Class AAAA state quarterfinals on Friday at Hastings. (Andrew Link /

WINONA — Aaron Witt is committed to the University of Wisconsin.

Ethan Prodzinski has received a scholarship offer from Iowa State and Winona State, along with making visits to Iowa and South Dakota State.

Bennett Heftman has received an offer from Division II Minnesota State, Moorhead.

Those accolades are pushed aside during the week by Winona High School's standout linemen and their teammates.

"Early on this offseason, they came up with motto 'we over me,'" Winhawks head football coach John Cassellius said. "They know it's more important for us to focus in on what we want to accomplish as a team, as opposed to one player or all the scholarship offers, visits, that stuff.

"The guys have been good about really focusing on our process week by week, then when they take off to go do their (college) things on Saturday's, it gives them a day to focus on themselves."

The 'we over me' motto has helped the No. 5-ranked Winhawks keep their eyes on their ultimate goal — a state championship. They hope to take another step toward that goal on Friday, when they face No. 9 Simley in a Class AAAA state tournament quarterfinal game at 7 p.m. at Hastings High School.

Winona is in the state tournament for a fourth consecutive season. It was the state runner-up in 2016, advanced to the state semifinals in 2017 and fell to Waseca in the state quarterfinals last year.

"They understand how big it can be for not only them but also the community, the support that comes with it," Cassellius said. "Some of these guys were on the team as freshmen that played for the state championship. They have that goal and that focus."

Success starts up front on both sides of the ball for the Winhawks (10-0).

On offense, returning quarterback Jackson Nibbelink and running backs Trevor Pomeroy and Sam Kanne are protected by a big, physical line — Prodzinski, Witt, Heftman, Jack Thompson, Cal Brinkman and Garit Wollan — that averages 6-foot-3, 237 pounds from left tackle through tight end.

"You look at that front 6, all those guys except for one are back from last year," Cassellius said. "They have that continuity and playing next to each other, that’s really been important. They know the calls, have seen all the fronts and have been through it together."

Witt, Prodzinski, Brinkman and Heftman are joined by senior Shawn Mugo in rotating through four defensive line spots. Only Matt Leahy — now playing at Wisconsin-Stevens Point — is gone from last year's defensive front.

"We want to win the line of scrimmage on both sides, that’s where it starts," Cassellius said. "It’s really helped us establish our run game, the play-action pass, and has given (Nibbelink) time. And on defense it allows our linebackers to get out and make plays."

Simley is at state for the third time in school history, the first since 2014. The Spartans needed a blocked punt with 4:34 left, and a touchdown run by speedster Jamonte Franklin with 21.2 seconds to go to beat South St. Paul 13-7 last week in the Section 3AAAA championship.

Simley has won four games by six points or less this season. Winona has won all 10 of its games by at least 10 points.

"When you have to battle through close games, it keeps you on the edge of your toes," Cassellius said. "Sometimes it's nice to be in those close games, other times it's nice to be able to rest kids a bit.

"You hope to get tested along the road, and play close games, but you have to look at it as, did our kids respond the way we’ve asked them to."

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