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Boys basketball: Winona’s 10 seniors, first-year head coach set a good example for future Winhawks

March 16, 2019

First-year Winona boys basketball coach Kyle Martin and the Winhawks’ 10 seniors set out to change the culture around the program. And they did just that.

Behind the efforts of a special group of upperclassmen leaders and an energetic, passionate coach, the Winhawks put together their most successful season in nearly a decade and created a blueprint for future success.

“This year, I think we set an example for the next five, six years,” senior Brody Bittle said. “Just to keep it going and keep the Winhawk spirit alive. I hope we brought it back.”

Winona’s season came to a close on Monday after a two-point loss to Northfield in the Section 1AAA semifinal — a disappointing results, no double, but a conclusion to a successful season. The Winhawks, with a record of 18-10, had their first winning season since the 2013-14 season and their best mark since 2010-11.

“It didn’t end the way I wanted to, but it’s a successful season as a whole,” Martin said. “Success to me is watching these guys grow, the character they’ve built, that’s the most important thing to me and I think that’s a huge success.”

It was a major turnaround from a tumultuous 2017-18 season. Several upperclassmen left the squad or didn’t even go out, and those that remained slogged through an 8-19 season culminating in a first-round playoff loss.

But it was a whole different story this year.

“Martin had us loving the game,” Bittle said. “He brought the love for this game back to me. It was so hard last year to come back to this. It was a long drag season with all of the seniors quitting last year. He just turned it around and I love what he did with the team. And I love that he can just keep it going.”

The Winhawks featured 10 seniors the season — Bittle, Lyle Jones, Zachary Brom, Terrell Hall, Matt Rinehart, Jake Reeck, Brad Winter, Joe Robinson, J.J. Branch, and Sam Nascak. That group of seniors built the foundation of the Winhawks squad.

Reeck, a guard committed to play basketball at Wisconsin-River Falls, set the school career scoring record in the section quarterfinal and was a great scoring threat all season.

Winter — an Augsburg basketball commit — was a highlight waiting to happen all season with his prodigious jumping ability, ready to dunk in a defender’s face or stuff an opponent’s shot at any time.

The 6-foot-6 Bittle was a strong presence inside, capable of shutting down an opponent’s best big man and ready to fight for every loose ball.

Hall — a defensive back commit to Division I North Dakota State — used the same physical tools that make him such a tremendous defender on the gridiron to shut down the perimeter on the court. He made life difficult for every guard he faced and had three steals in the first three minutes of the section semifinal.

Rinehart — a Wisconsin-Stevens Point football commit — was capable at both ends of the floor, a strong defender capable of scoring when he needed to.

Lyle Jones was a spark plug off the bench who flew around the court and energized the lineup when called upon.

“My 10 seniors, I’m going to miss them,” Martin said. “There’s not a group of guys that I’ve ever met like them. They have unmatched leadership. All these guys in this program, I told them, ‘What you’ve done for this program, for this community, for this team is so wonderful.’ I’m going to miss them.”

Bittle had just as much praise for his coach as Martin had for his group of seniors.

“Every day, he would say he loves us,” he said. “He found the relationships — he could relate to every team player. He came to every team dinner. He gave us a story that reflected off us, who we were, and that inspired us to accomplish what we did this season.”

Winona is going to have a big hill to climb moving forward without its seniors. But this year’s group laid a foundation that the next set of Winhawks can build on.