HILLS -- Two unbeaten teams were preparing to compete here under stadium lights on a crisp fall evening that seemed perfect for high school football.
But there were no winners this night.
Thursday night’s Nine-Man clash between Hills-Beaver Creek and Heron Lake-Okabena/Fulda was canceled just minutes before it was to start when the visiting Coyotes realized a COVID-19 positive test and its aftermath made it impossible to play.
“We had a positive test within our team, and because of close contacts we just ran out of guys,” said HL-O/Fulda co-coach Jonathan Curry.
He said the Coyote coaches first heard about the positive test Thursday afternoon and thought they’d still have enough players. But about 30 minutes before the scheduled kickoff it was learned several more athletes would have to enter quarantine because of contact tracing.
That left the Wolverines, who have just six seniors on the roster, woefully short of numbers.
Both teams were on the field warming up about 45 minutes prior to kickoff. But soon thereafter the scoreboard lights went dark and fans were notified of the bad news.
“It’s horrible,” said H-BC senior quarterback Gavin Wysong. “Nobody should have to go through this.”
Wysong is one of the most gifted athletes in southwest Minnesota, a 175-pounder with quickness, speed and a track record of success.
But there was no joy on either sideline here Thursday night.
“It stinks that people get COVID,” Wysong said. “Nobody ever thought it would get to this extreme. I feel terrible for the HL-O/Fulda players. They wanted to play this game as much as we did. They’ve got seniors, just like we do. I feel sorry for their senior class, too.
“This (game) was gonna be a dogfight. And I was ready for it.”
Hills-Beaver Creek opened the pandemic-altered prep season on Oct. 9 with a 36-0 thumping of Sleep Eye St. Mary’s. The H-LO/Fulda program began its season with a 48-20 trouncing of Edgerton.
Nobody felt like celebrating here Thursday night.
“It’s so hard for the kids,” Curry said. “(The Patriots are) the No. 1 team in the state and we were coming off an exciting win. I love playing Hills, because they’re always a great team. And our kids love playing Hills.”
Hills-Beaver Creek features talented seniors Gavin Wysong, Tyson Bork, Chase Bosch, Dewell Rauk, Calvin Erickson, Tory Knobloch, Tryce Bennett, Zander Wysong and Thomas Dysthe.
The Patriots lost only two games last fall, both to eventual Nine-Man state champion Mountain Lake Area, and were ranked No. 1 among state Nine-Man teams in the recent Associated Press poll.
“We’ve got a good group of guys,” H-BC head coach Rex Metzger said. “And they just want to play football. To not be able to play (Thursday night) is just heartbreaking.”
The veteran Patriot coach sympathized with the Coyote coaches and officials.
“It’s an unfortunate event,” Metzger said. “HL-O/Fulda wanted to play as bad as we did, but at the end of the day if you’ve got guys playing out of position safety comes into play. We’ve been there, done that, with years when we’ve had small numbers.
“They’re thin and getting guys pulled off right before the start of the game here,” Metzger said. “It’s too bad for just everybody. You’re ready to play a game, and you can’t.”
The HL-O/Fulda squad is led by standout seniors Eli Fest, Matt Madsen, Jaeden Strandberg, Isaiah Schmid and Zach Thier.
“We’ve got some good players and we’ve been working very hard for this season,” Curry said. “It’s just a bummer.”
He paused a moment.
“We know we’re not the only ones (in the state affected by the pandemic),” Curry said. “But it’s hard when it’s you.”
Is the HLO/Fulda season in jeopardy?
“We have no idea,” said Curry. “It’s kind of minute by minute at this point. We really have no idea. We’ll see what kind of news we get in the coming days and see what happens.”
Next Friday, the Coyotes are scheduled to play at Mountain Lake and the Patriots are slated to play host to Westbrook-Walnut Grove. But that was little consolation here Thursday as dozens of teenagers in their football uniforms walked downcast off the field.
“There’s a lot of sad kids,” Metzger said. “Your season’s cut short anyway with six games, and then you lose another game. It’s heartbreaking for these kids.”