HASTINGS -- Winona hadn’t faced many tense situations this season.
The Winhawks won all eight of their regular season football games by double digits, then blew out Faribault (62-0) in the Section One, Class AAAA semifinals and pulled away for a comfortable win against Kasson-Mantorville in the section final (40-21).
But Friday, the Winhawks were up by just two points early in the fourth quarter. And the team’s veteran leaders remained poised in a pressure-packed situation.
Quarterback Jackson Nibbelink scored his second rushing touchdown of the game and willed his way into the end zone for a two-point conversion that helped the Winhawks breathe a little easier en route to a 24-14 victory against Simley in the Class AAAA football state quarterfinal round.
The win gets the Winhawks back into the state semifinals and back to U.S. Bank Stadium for the first time since the 2017 state semifinals, when they lost a heart-breaker against Holy Angels by four points. The year before that, Winona made it all the way to the Prep Bowl before losing another close one, 31-28, against Benilde-St. Margaret’s.
The Winhawks’ sights are set on getting back to the Prep Bowl and sending their seniors out in style.
But first, No. 5-ranked Winona (11-0) will have to battle with Rocori (9-2), which was unranked in the final state poll of the season, but knocked off No. 6-ranked Detroit Lakes 14-6 in the Section 8AAAA championship game, then thumped Section 6AAAA champion Delano 35-7 on Friday in a state quarterfinal.
Friday, Winona and Simley treated the ball like a hot potato.
Simley -- the first team this season to hold Winona to less than 30 points in a game -- turned the ball over five times, while the Winhawks committed four turnovers.
But the Winhawks received a strong night from their leading rusher, Trevor Pomeroy, who broke the school’s all-time rushing record early this season. He rushed for 168 yards against Simley.
“Running hard, running guys over, that’s what he does,” Nibbelink told the St. Paul Pioneer Press.
Winona led 10-7 at halftime, scoring on a short run by Nibbelink and a 29-yard field goal by Bryan Cassellius.
Winhawks coach John Cassellius earlier in the week said the Winhawks understand how important a win against Simley would be for the team’s seniors and for the Winona High fans who have supported the team all season.
“It's huge,” he said. "They understand how big it can be for not only them but also the community, the support that comes with it. Some of these guys were on the team as freshmen that played for a state championship. They have that goal and that focus.”