According to the NCAA, less than five percent of all high school football players in the nation go on to play in college at the Division I or II levels.
In states like Minnesota, that number is even less.
On Friday morning, five Winona Senior High School football players signed ceremonial National Letters of Intent to play college football — all in the ultra-competitive Northern Sun Intercollegiate Conference — bringing the Winhawks’ total number of signees to six.
That means that 40 percent of the Winahwks’ senior class will be receiving scholarship money to play a sport they love in college.
“This is a great day for our program,” Winona coach John Cassellius said. “Six guys who have played together for a long time and have had a lot of success … it’s a really cool thing.”
The five NSIC-bound seniors are Bennett Heftman (Minnesota State-Moorhead), Sam Kanne (Bemidji State), Ethan Prodzinski (Minnesota State-Mankato), Jackson Nibbelink (Northern State) and Garit Wollan (Winona State). All five officially signed and sent in their letters to their respective schools on Wednesday — the first day student-athletes could sign with Division II football schools — but the ceremony was held on friday so all could be honored together.
All-state defensive end Aaron Witt signed with the University of Wisconsin in December.
Heftman, an offensive lineman, liked the coaching staff at Moorhead. “I really liked the family feel up there,” he said.
Kanne will play fullback at Bemidji State, and chose his school for similar reasons. “I was a big fan of all the coaches,” he said. “And the campus is beautiful.”
Prodzinski drew the interest of Division I schools like Iowa State and South Dakota State, who offered him a preferred walk-on spot with the chance to earn a scholarship later in his career. But he chose Minnesota State, last year’s Division II national runner-up. “I really liked the campus and I connected with the coaches really well,” he said.
Nibbelink, a quarterback, wasn’t even sure he wanted to play football in college. But Northern State, now coached by former UW-La Crosse coach Mike Schmidt, won him over. “They turned my mind around immediately,” he said.
Wollan will follow in his dad’s footsteps at Winona State. He will play tight end. “I chose Winona State because they have always been there,” he said. “They offered me in the summer. They were the first school. The coaches have always showed love for me my whole career.”
The five were asked what it would be like when they face each other on the field for the first time, although all five were quick to point out they’ll all play offense in college.
Still, it will be odd being on different teams.
And will they miss each other after being on the same team for so many years?
“Sometimes, yes,” Kanne said with a wry smile. “Other times, no.”
The seniors were part of the most successful run in program history. The Winhawks were 43-5 over the past four years with three district titles, four section titles, a state runner-up finish in 2016 and state semifinal runs in 2017 and 2019. They also never lost a game at Paul Giel Field.