Blooming Prairie's football field was empty Friday night, during what would normally be game time. (Aaron Lavinsky / Star Tribune)
BLOOMING PRAIRIE – Sunsets in southern Minnesota, Blooming Prairie activities director Alison Mach opined, glow in a manner unlike those viewed from other parts of the state.
She admired the sight while standing outside McFarlin Field, barren on the Friday night of Labor Day weekend instead of buzzing from the football season opener against rival Rushford-Peterson, and a reminder of a high school football season unlike any before.
Winning their first Prep Bowl championship last fall gave the Awesome Blossoms a glow of their own, one the coronavirus pandemic will not allow players to share on upcoming autumn evenings.
“Missing out on the energy a state championship would have brought to this community is tough,” football coach Chad Gimbel said. “And these kids are missing out, especially the seniors. For them, it’s a rite of passage.”
Ritual activities for football players, coaches and fans alike culminated with the 2019 Class 1A championship. Those little things are creating big voids throughout a town of about 2,000 residents.
Linda Klemmensen, owner of Sportstitch, folded a Blooming Prairie shirt Friday in her garage. Photo by Aaron Lavinsky
A typical Friday afternoon during football season finds Klemmensen busy selling team sweatshirts to fans heading to the game.
If the weather isn’t cooperating or the team is on the road, many fans watch the game at the Blooming Prairie Cue Company, a bar featuring pool tables and a 100-inch television. Team photos of all the high school’s sports teams flank each side of the screen, with “Awesome Blossoms” underneath.
“Pretty much every table is full on a football Friday night,” said Tony Lea, co-owner with his wife, Colette. They also run the adjacent Pizza Cellar restaurant, donating pizzas to be sold by fundraising groups at the stadium concession stand.
The Friday night atmosphere at McFarlin Field extends beyond the bleachers. As a youngster, senior Mitchell Fiebiger and his friends would play tackle football against kids from the visiting school on the baseball field behind the stadium.
Fiebiger, the Awesome Blossoms’ middle linebacker and a team captain, said his parents allowed him to play with friends in the first half. In the second half, he sat and watched his two older brothers.
Fans also watch from their cars, which line Third Street on the stadium’s north side, sometimes obscuring the view of homeowners across the street who place fire pits and lawn chairs in their driveway.
Radios in town are tuned to KRFO-FM 104.9, better known as Kat Kountry 105. Broadcaster Jason Iacovino, a 1997 Blooming Prairie graduate, was primed for his 19th consecutive season airing games.
“You can feel the disappointment. It’s genuine,” Iacovino said. “I heard from dads of the seniors who just graduated who are absolutely bummed they can’t watch football.”
Gimbel preaches tradition, and he will miss a few of his own on gameday. He rises from a 15-minute “power nap” around 4 p.m., heads to Dairy Queen for a peanut butter Oreo Blizzard. Longtime store owner Nick Schiefert buys advertising to help finance Iacovino’s broadcasts. At 6 p.m., Gimbel and his players leave the school single file and walk to the stadium.
Those familiar chills take over, Gimbel said, when he hears the music on the public address system and sees the stadium lights, glowing.