Prep football: State championship berth on the line as Winhawks play Holy Angels in state semifinal Thursday
There are only four teams left.
The Minnesota Class AAAA tournament is down to the four best teams, and this year Winona Senior High School is one of them. At 4:30 p.m. on Thursday, the Winhawks (11-0) head back to U.S. Bank Stadium and the state semifinal to continue their march toward their second-consecutive state championship berth. Standing in front of them are the Holy Angels Stars (10-1).
How are the Winhawks going to get past Holy Angels and into the Prep Bowl? Winona coach John Cassellius says by doing exactly the same thing they’ve done all year.
“The recipe for success is going to be very similar,” the coach said. “Maybe it sounds like a broken record, but our o-line and d-line are going to have to play well.
“We’d like to be able to establish the run and continue the run game. Based off that, hopefully we can get our guys the ability to run some routes and have some time. We want to be balanced.”
That formula has worked for the Winhawks all season, including in a 17-14 victory over Fridley in the state quarterfinals on a cold and windy day at Farmington High School last Friday. Winona rushed for 196 yards while holding the Tigers to only 10 rushing yards. The Winhawks racked up 10 tackles for loss and six sacks.
They’ll need to keep that up in the game against Holy Angels and quarterback Joseph Heimbold. The playmaking signal caller is a threat through the air and on the ground. He has 1,200 yards and 18 touchdowns passing this season and 1,240 yards and 11 touchdowns rushing.
“He’s their best player, their offense runs right through him,” Cassellius said. “The biggest thing for us is to control the line of scrimmage and feel a little uncomfortable if he’s going to step back and pass the ball. Also when he’s going to run the ball — which he does really well — finish tackles. And do a nice job of getting after it so that our secondary has time to get to balls and he can’t just stand back there and pick us apart.”
The Winhawks will have to try to contain the quarterback and eliminate the big play — something they struggled with a little bit against Fridley. Winona was dominant defensively throughout most of the game, but a few big plays including a 70-yard passing touchdown kept the Tigers within striking distance.
“It’s just going to come down to consistency and eliminating the big play,” the coach said. “They had a couple big plays passing the ball. We only gave up four first downs the entire game and less than 200 yards, but 135 of them came on three plays. We have to eliminate that and head in the right direction.”
The Stars’ lone loss this season came at the hands of a foe familiar to the Winhawks. They fell 20-19 to Benilde-St. Margaret’s on Oct. 6. Those same Red Knights defeated Winona 31-28 in the state championship game a year ago.
After that run to the state championship game a year ago, the Winhawks are the only team left in the Class AAAA tournament that played in U.S. Bank Stadium last year. While it may take away some of the awe factor for his team, Cassellius says he doesn’t think that experience will affect the outcome — it still just comes down to who is the better team.
“Yeah we’ve been there, we’ve walked through, we’ve seen it and that will help,” Cassellius said. “But really what it’s going to come down to is who makes those plays and who doesn’t make those mistakes. The field is the same size. Obviously you’re playing in a cool stadium, so for some people that might be shock and awe, but once the whistle blows, and the kickoff starts, it’s just a football game. Our kids and their kids will be ready and raring to play.”
The winner of Thursday’s semifinal game will advance to the Class AAAA state championship game on Friday, Nov. 24 to play the winner of the other semifinal between South St. Paul and Cloquet.