MINNEAPOLIS — Aaron Witt played in four games at U.S. Bank Stadium during his high school career.
He helped Winona High School win four section championships, reach the state football semifinals three times and the Prep Bowl once. He's earned All-State honors and a scholarship to play defensive end at the University of Wisconsin.
But, sitting in the bowels of the Minnesota Vikings' home stadium Friday night, just moments after his magnificent high school career with the Winhawks had come to a close, Witt was thinking more about the group of guys sitting just yards away in the Winona locker room.
"The games are great and all, but just being around the guys is special," Witt said. "Waking up at 5 in the morning, going to work with them, doing all those things, growing together and becoming a family, that’s what I’m really going to miss.
"Football games are great, but I’m going to remember that time together – and I’m sure everyone else will too."
Witt and the No. 5-ranked Winhawks saw another outstanding season come to an end in the Class AAAA state semifinals with a 48-24 loss to unranked Rocori.
"It’s been an amazing ride with these kids," Winona coach John Cassellius said. "It’s their fourth game here in four years, they've been to the state tournament four years in a row. It’s just a great group of kids who’ve worked extremely hard.
"They’ve made sacrifices for each other. We talk about family quite a bit and it’s true. We tell thse kids we love them and we’ll be there for them for the rest of their lives."
Friday's game was a rematch of a state semifinal from three years ago — the first time the Winhawks had ever played at U.S. Bank Stadium. It was a game in which Winona intercepted a pass in the final minute to seal a wild 34-30 victory and a berth in the Prep Bowl.
Rocori (10-2) got the better of the Winhawks (11-1) this time, though, erupting for six second-half touchdowns to reverse a 14-7 halftime deficit and pull away for the victory.
Winona also lost two starting linemen — seniors Ethan Prodzinski and Cal Brinkman — to injuries, forcing some younger players into the lineup.
"It hurt having some injuries, with Ethan going out and Cal, our starting center, going out," Cassellius said. "So that’s two starters on our D line, two starters on our offensive line. We had some young guys out there battling and doing their best. That was part of it, and then we just didn’t make as many plays as we needed to, and when we made mistakes they took advantage of it."
The Spartans' defense forced five Winona turnovers in the game, including three interceptions, all by Rocori defensive back Tucker Haakonson.
And when Rocori had the ball, quarterback Jack Steil was nearly unstoppable. He ran for 168 yards and five touchdowns on 19 attempts. Running back Brady Linn also ran for 100 yards and two TDs.
"They have some really great players on that side of the ball who just made more plays than we did," said Witt, who recovered a bad punt snap by Rocori in the end zone for Winona's first touchdown.
Winona also received two rushing TDs from Nibbelink, and freshman Bryan Cassellius kicked a 32-yard field goal.
"Obviously we wanted to come out and get a stop right away in the second half, get the ball back and do the things that were working well in 2nd quarter," John Cassellius said, "and we just weren’t able to make that happen."
Winona won 14 games in the first four years of this decade. Over the past four seasons, Winona's seniors have helped the team compile a record of 43-5.
"There’s hope," Nibbelink said. "Every year we’ve been here and there’s no reason why we can’t do it again. Our coaches have a really great atmosphere where, you give them a handful of good players, they can make them into really great players."
ROCORI 48, WINONA 24
Rocori 7 0 20 21 — 48
Winona 7 7 3 7 — 24
ROC — Jack Steil 1 run (Christian Rodriguez kick) 9:16.
WIN — Aaron Witt fumble recovery in end zone (Bryan Cassellius kick) 6:41.
WIN — Jackson Nibbelink 15 run (Cassellius kick) 5:19.
ROC — Brady Linn 23 run (Rodriguez kick) 11:30.
ROC — Steil 1 run (Rodriguez kick) 7:55.
WIN — Cassellius 32 FG 1:15.
ROC — Steil 7 run (kick blocked) 4:21.
ROC — Steil 17 run (Rodriguez kick) 10:40.
WIN — Nibbelink 4 run (Cassellius kick) 7:12.
ROC — Steil 44 run (Rodriguez kick) 7:04.
ROC — Linn 2 run (Rodriguez kick) 4:13.
Total net yards#407#297
Time of poss.#24:16#23:44
ROC: Jack Steil 19-168, 5 TDs; Brady Linn 14-100, 2 TDs; Luke Humbert 5-21; Carter Thielen 3-4; Brady Blattner 1-1; TEAM 1-(minus-21). WIN: Trevor Pomeroy 16-69; Jackson Nibbelink 12-33; Dominic Davis 2-7; Sam Kanne 1-1; Ricardo Castanon 1-0.
ROC: Steil 8-12-0, 134 yards. WIN: Nibbelink 17-27-3, 222 yards.
ROC: Jayden Philippi 3-66; Colton Baumgarten 2-39; Andrew Anders 2-22; Tucker Haakonson 1-7. WIN: Austin Mlynczak 7-83; Dylan Gamoke 4-83; Sam Kanne 2-16; Trenten Langowski 2-15; Sean Mohan 1-17; Thomas Modjeski 1-8.