Riders for the Storm
STEPHEN AND ARGYLE, Minn. - It's becoming a bit of a Thanksgiving tradition for these two blue-collar farming towns. When most area families are gathering around the table for their annual holiday feasts today, a busload of high school football p...
STEPHEN AND ARGYLE, Minn. - It's becoming a bit of a Thanksgiving tradition for these two blue-collar farming towns.
When most area families are gathering around the table for their annual holiday feasts today, a busload of high school football players and a convoy of fans will be headed south on U.S. Highway 75 toward the Twin Cities and a chance to extend what has become a mind-boggling string of victories.
Traveling to the Minnesota state 9-man football championship has become a holiday rite for the players and fans of Stephen-Argyle Central School, making the late November trip year after year since 1996.
The team will go for its sixth title, fifth since 2003, and 67th straight win at 10 a.m. Friday in the Metrodome.
In past years, when the team left Stephen and rolled through Argyle in the wee hours, fireworks helped launch them. That won't happen this year, townspeople say, because the bus leaves much later than usual, around 11 a.m.
But, the Argyle parents and boosters who usually put on the show say they'll have a colorful display to welcome them back the night of their return - win or lose.
Talk of the town
High school football is the talk of the towns. It's hard to find a storefront on Pacific Avenue, Stephen's main drag, that doesn't have a message of encouragement for the Storm players.
And it's hard not to find someone with a connection of some kind to the football team.
Kevin Sundby, who's son, Josh, is a freshman quarterback, talked with friends Wednesday at the Northwest Grain elevator in Stephen, a place where wheat prices rival the latest Storm football gossip for top billing.
"We're not assuming nothing," Sundby said. "I wouldn't say winning has become old hat or anything. We're just happy for the boys. But we've got to keep that winning streak going."
Stephen-Argyle, a co-op of towns with populations of 700 and 650, respectively, hasn't lost a game since the 2002 state semi-finals against Nicollet.
Never gets old
At Stephen's Roadside Grill cafe, the usual crew was in place, tongues wagging between swallows of buttered toast slathered with over-easy eggs.
"I'm heading down there! I'm going to get a front-row seat," said Bob Benson, a farmer and crop consultant who's freshman son, Jeremy, wears No. 50 on the team.
Benson's breakfast mate was Earl Anderson, who used to run the Stephen newspaper, The Messenger. Anderson said it's hard to get away from talk of the Storm's success.
"I would say it comes up about 50 percent of the time," he said. "It never gets old, it just keeps getting better. Everybody wonders when it's going to end - you know how that is."
Cafe owner Tami Hanson said sometimes it's hard to speak over her morning coffee crowd.
"It gets so blooming loud in here you can't really understand anyone because everyone is just yak, yak, yak," she said. "It's a good time though. It's all in fun."
Surely, there are never any arguments over Storm football?
"Yeah, there are," Benson says. "We argue about how big of a point spread we're going to have. I've got my predictions - but I'm not going to say it."
About nine miles south on Highway 75, at the Cenex station in Argyle, the confidence flowed hotter than the coffee.
Donald Kathman, one of a half dozen "semi-retired" farmers, holding court on a circle of chairs near the cashier's counter, wasn't shy about his prediction of a 54-4 Storm win.
Earl Riopelle had more generosity for the Storm's opponents, "Oh, I think they'll get two touchdowns."
Joe Tulibaski piped in, "We play just as many games here as we do in the Metrodome - it's a home-field advantage, you know."
Glenn Stoltman, a Cenex worker, quipped from behind the counter, "we've got a longer streak than the Vikings or the Gophers at the dome."
Rivals no more?
Stephen and Argyle used to be heated rivals on the gridiron before they joined forces in 1996, but Benson said, that is no longer the case.
"That fizzled out a long time ago," he said.
Others disagree. "It's still there," Hanson said.
Argyle's Tulibaski lent credence to her assessment.
"I like to rib them a little," he said. "Whenever the Storm win, I say it's an Argyle victory, and when they don't, I say it's a Stephen loss."
Riopelle said because the cable TV system in Stephen and Argyle won't be carrying the game, many residents who won't make the trek to the Twin Cities will drive a short distance to Mick's bar in Warren, Minn., to watch it.
Hanson said she'll close her cafe today for the holiday and reopen it Friday, though she's not expecting a big crowd, especially at game time.
"Even last year there was next to nobody here," she said.
The Rev. Mike Schendel, pastor at First Lutheran Church in Stephen, said after past Storm championships, it was evident much of his congregation took in a long weekend in the cities.
"There were some Sundays when it was pretty sparse in there, but I think that has changed a little bit over time," he said.
Bob Clausen, Argyle mayor and a shop teacher at Stephen-Argyle Central, said he hopes there's enough people left to tend to the town after today's exodus.
"I kind of worry about fire protection, but usually, out of about 20 firefighters, I'd say half will stick around."
On the road again
Clausen said, with all of the Storm's recent success in the state football championship, he's getting used to celebrating Thanksgiving on the road. He plans to leave town today and swing by the Bronze Boot restaurant in Grand Forks for a big meal.
He said he knows others have similar plans in the Twin Cities.
"It's kind of become a tradition to have turkey in the Cities," Clausen said. "We're not taking Thanksgiving for granted. It's just an option we have - turkey in the dome."
Kevin Kuznia, the school's athletic director, will spend his fifth Thanksgiving in a row away from home. But, he can't complain that much.
"It's good, but it's not like mom makes," he joked.
Clausen's counterpart in Stephen, Mayor Betty Pikop, will spend the holiday with her father, who fractured his hip, at MeritCare South in Fargo before cruising to the game.
Pikop is a substitute teacher in the local school district, giving her a personal connection to the Storm players, coaches and managers.
"I would not miss this for anything," Pikop said. "You work with these kids everyday and you just can't help but love them - and the coach (Mark Kroulik) has everything to do with that."
Thanks for football
Most of the students in Clausen's construction class are on the football team. He said he's been doing his part to keep their minds on school this week by stressing the need to complete a class project of building a garage.
"I told them we've got a job to do here," he said. "We just got done shingling a few hours ago. Kolby Gruhot was up there shingling. He's not only a lineman; he's a shingler, too."
Benson said the players, parents and fans who follow the team to the Twin Cities today will have a proper Thanksgiving meal waiting for them upon their arrival.
He said football isn't taking precedence over family.
"Everybody is making such a big deal about it, but I don't see anything wrong with it," Benson said. "It just gives us the opportunity to be thankful for something else."