With great success comes lofty expectations.
For Winner, its 85-5 record since joining 11B in 2009 has raised the bar to the “downright implausible” range.
“Quite honestly, I think some of the expectations were very unrealistic at times,” coach Dan Aaker said in November. “Some people think that you just show up and that’s all you have to do. Our guys know better than that… That’s probably what I’m proudest of this group for is how they’ve handled that and just focused on having a good season.”
But no matter the standard you set for the Warriors, their performance in 2016 was nothing short of remarkable.
In claiming its second consecutive state title, Winner, which has won 24 consecutive games, surrendered a total of 35 points, whilst allowing fewer than 100 total yards per game.
But that’s not to say there weren’t challenges.
In late October, the Warriors lost a teammate, junior offensive lineman/linebacker Taylor Watzel, to an accident on the family farm.
“We had some tough things to deal with these last couple weeks,” senior Cameron Kuil said following the state championship game in November. “It brought us together as a team and as a community. We knew what we were playing for and who we were playing for. Taylor Watzel was a teammate and a friend.”
Though it paled in comparison to the heartbreak of losing a teammate, Winner faced adversity on the field, as well.
In the 11B semifinals, Bridgewater-Emery/Ethan became the first team in two years to take a lead on the defending state champs, kicking through a field goal early in the first quarter.
Six minutes later, the Warriors retaliated with the first of three unanswered touchdowns.
“We’ve definitely had a tough road to get back and that’s what we needed – to get challenged, to see the best,” Aaker said. “I think our guys have embraced that, too. They’re the type of crew that wants a challenge. They’re not going to back away from competition.”
At the DakotaDome, the Warriors put the final exclamation point on their phenomenal season, racking up 438 total yards in a 54-0 dismantling of Groton Area.
“We tried to stay humble all the time,” said senior running back Cameron Kuil, who caught three passes for 105 yards and ran nine times for 59 yards in the finale. “We know we have a great football team. People hold us to a higher level and we wanted to reach that level.”
Kuil was one of nine Warriors to crack the 11B All-State team. He was joined by Drew DeMers, Jayden Schroeder, Jordan Turgeon, Wyatt Ewing, Isaac Naasz, Krockett Krolikowski, Chase Kingsbury and Kayleb Brozik.
Kuil and Krolikowski, both of whom are headed to SDSU next season (Kuil for track), were also Elite 45 selections.
“That’s just a great 11-man football team, it doesn’t matter what class you’re talking about,” Groton Area coach Shaun Warner said following the 11B championship. “At least one division up and probably more, they’d be a great team.”