High school football: Winona has plenty of big shoes to fill
Winona quarterback Deion Prolo, No. 12 shown above rushing after his shoe fell off in a game last season, will be returning under center for a mostly-inexperienced Winhawks squad this fall.
The Class of 2023 was one to remember for the Winona football team, with college-bound talent and multi-year starters scattered all over the field on a senior-dominated lineup last fall.
Now, the Winhawks have plenty of voids to fill.
“I think a lot of these guys know they have an opportunity to play. There’s a lot of competition,” head coach John Cassellius said. “It’s not ‘who’s battling to be the backup to the kid that’s been there for a couple years?’ it’s ‘how can I make the stamp to be the guy that gets to start on Friday night?’”
It will be no easy task to replace all the players Winona lost, with seven all-district players and a quartet of two-time Winona Daily News all-area honorees departing, including last year’s WDN Player of the Year linebacker Bryan Cassellius.
Cassellius and lineman Wesley Wollan have since joined the Winona State squad, continuing their careers at the Division II level.
In total, the Winhawks lost nearly all of their defensive backfield, many of their receiving threats, a solid core in the trenches, their top running back and one of their two quarterbacks from the team that went 7-3 a year ago.
However, those seniors’ impact on the program will not disappear without a trace as the current class of seniors imparts those lessons to the next generation.
“Guys around the team, they taught me consistency is key. Staying with it, no days off,” senior running back Ronnie Lemon said.
For as many guys as they lost, the Winhawks do return some players.
Lemon, for example, saw time in a backfield committee last season and will be back alongside fellow returners juniors Aiden Nation and Jaden Blanck. With top-dog Dominic Davis and running quarterback Mason Langowski both gone, that trio will be relied on even more heavily this fall.
Langowski split time under center with Deion Prolo last season, and the dual-threat junior will be the main man at quarterback this upcoming fall, and Coach Cassellius has touted his knack for distributing the ball throughout the team’s summer camps.
On the offensive line, senior Zander Lorenz is the team’s top returner and he has stepped into the void as one of the team’s leaders according to Cassellius.
According to Lorenz himself, it is a symbiotic relationship between the veterans and their younger teammates.
“They help us as much as we help them. We both grow together,” Lorenz said.
Winona will not be the biggest team in the state this fall, but the Winhawks plan to make up for that with their plethora of athletic players at each position.
“We’re definitely lacking in size, but we can make up for it if we have good tempo,” senior receiver and defensive back Owen Graner said.
Graner is one of few key defensive contributors from last season’s team, one of only two players in the top 10 in tackles that is back after finishing sixth with 37 tackles, including five for loss, with two fumbles recovered.
Senior linebacker Kort Bellman is Winona’s only returning all-district player, anchoring the linebacker spot after finishing third on the team with 63 tackles, six for loss, with two sacks and one fumble, which he forced then returned for a touchdown in Winona’s first playoff game.
The rest of the Winhawks defense will be filled with plenty of new faces, but that does not mean the unit will be lacking talent.
Cassellius has been impressed in particular with the offseason improvement of defensive backs Krayton Bergstrom and Patrick Curtin. The pair showed flashes in limited playing time as sophomores on the senior-heavy squad last fall, and should be key cogs in the defense for the next two seasons.
The Winhawks will have a tough schedule that looks significantly different from past years following offseason district realignment.
This fall, Winona is part of a five-team Skyway Platinum district alongside recent district foes Faribault, Byron and Kasson-Mantorville, with Austin joining the fray. It is the first time the Winhawks and Packers, a pair of bitter Big 9 Conference rivals in every other sport, will face off on the gridiron since 2020.
Departing Winona’s district are Albert Lea and Red Wing, both teams that have typically struggled in the standings, as well as Mankato East, which bounced between the middle of the pack and near the top.
Winona will also face off against a trio of opponents from the Skyway’s other colored districts, starting the season with a road matchup against Skyway Gold’s Simley, the reigning Class AAAA state champion.
It would be a tough matchup for any team, but for a team as young as the Winhawks, it will be a trial by fire that will force the players to improve win, lose or draw.
“It’s a great experience for them to test themselves against the defending state champions,” Cassellius said.
It may take a bit for the inexperienced squad to find its footing, but by the end of the eight-game regular season, Cassellius thinks his players will be seasoned enough to chase their dreams of making the team’s first state appearance since making it four straight season from 2016 through 2019.
“I see this team as one that will continue to develop over time. I think we’re going to be in the hunt for where we want to be,” Cassellius said.
Andrew Tucker can be reached at [email protected] or via Twitter @andrewjtucker16
(All times Friday at 7 p.m. unless noted)
x Sept. 1: @ Simley
x Sept. 8: vs Mound Westonka
Sept. 15: @ Byron
x Sept. 22: vs St. Croix Lutheran
Sept. 29: @ Kasson-Mantorville
Oct. 6: vs Faribault
Thurs. Oct. 12: vs Austin
^ Wed. Oct. 18: @ Rochester Century
x - District Crossover
^ - Non-district
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