PILLAGER -- Brooke Steffen and her friends are hoping to roll up their tank tops and paint letters on their stomachs at Saturday's state semifinal football game, baring their support for the Pillager Huskies.
But that's only if the 13-year-old's mom says it's OK.
"We're going to try to spell 'Go Huskies' or we'll have to spell 'Go PHS,' depending on how many people we get to do it," said Steffen.
"My mom said I can," added her friend, Brianna Hoheisel, 13.
A fever has spread throughout the city of Pillager.
For the first time, the Pillager Huskies football team, which is 10-1 this season, is playing in the state semifinals at 10:30 a.m. Saturday at the Metrodome. The whole community has caught Huskies fever, evident in the handmade "Go Huskies" signs that nearly outnumber U.S. flags in the windows of homes and businesses throughout town.
Last year the team made it to the state quarterfinals, but lost to Warren-Alvarado-Oslo.
Ironically, the football coach and athletic director last year at Warren-Alvarado-Oslo High School was Scott Doss. He is now principal at Pillager High School. Doss has had his share of good-natured ribbing about his former team beating his current school football team last season.
"I've caught it all year," said Doss with a laugh. "But that's OK. We've got good kids and a good staff and it's been fun. It's been fun to watch their success."
The entire town -- population 420, according to the sign -- has been turned upside down by the Huskies' winning season.
Community members are showing up for the games, no matter how far they have to drive. They've been buying out most of the Pillager Huskies sweatshirts for sale at the school office. A fan bus and charter bus have been reserved to take fans to the Metrodome Saturday. At the state quarterfinals playoff Nov. 9 against the Cook County Vikings in Grand Marais, Doss estimated there were at least 300 Pillager fans there, more 'If pride had weight, I'd be two pounds heavier. These kids have done so great. I'm really, really proud of them.' -- Rosebud White Works at Stew's Subs in Pillager fans than the other team had in its own hometown.
"Everyone's wearing maroon and gold," said Pillager football coach Pete Bothun. "They're all fired up. I would imagine most of the town will be closed on Saturday."
When the team returned to Pillager from its five-hour trip at 2:30 a.m. that night, police cars and fire trucks escorted the team throughout town, horns and sirens blaring, in an impromptu parade.
All the commotion woke up Northwoods Cafe waitress Gerry Frasier, but she didn't mind.
"It's going to be exciting," Frasier said of Saturday's game. "They're just really thrilled to do so well. It's a chance for Pillager to feel good, put us on the map a little more."
Frasier, who has a sixth-grade son at Pillager, said the football team's great year has gotten parents of younger children excited again about volunteering to coach the younger teams, even teams in different sports. It has invigorated the whole community to volunteer to help young people, she said.
"If pride had weight, I'd be two pounds heavier," said Rosebud White, who was working Wednesday afternoon at Stew's Subs in Pillager. "These kids have done so great. I'm really, really proud of them."
White tacks up newspaper clippings about the team on the wall in the arcade area at the sub shop. It's the place where a lot of the football players and their friends hang out, she said.
"These kids are really important to us," said White. "The more we pay attention to the kids, the more we build their self-motivation to achieve, and it shows. We all feel it isn't just these kids doing it for themselves. They're doing it for the town."
A few blocks away at Pillager High School, posters line the walls, made by nearly every child in school. Even the elementary students are making posters. The enthusiasm has spread to adults in school, too.
Chris Berent, Pillager assistant football coach, recently broke his wrist. He wasn't able to get a maroon cast put on, so instead he wrapped his cast with maroon-colored hockey tape.
"I've noticed a real positive attitude about the success of the football team," said Gary Fredman, a junior high and high school science teacher at Pillager. "The junior high students are really enthusiastic, even their parents. That's fun to see. Certainly the success of the football team reflects on the positive attitude in the classroom. The students say, 'Yeah, we are somebody here. We're a part of something here.'"
Seniors Joelle Niggler and Heather McCulley are part of the "Shirt Girls," a group of students who paint their faces, put ribbons in their hair and spell "Go Huskies" on the front of their T-shirts with "Touchdown" printed on their backs.
Niggler is the "U"; McCulley is the "H." They haven't missed a game this season yet.
"We've never gone this far in the history of Pillager," said Niggler, excitedly. "And our boys did it. They deserve it."
"Coming from a small town, they don't expect us to do well," said McCulley. "Not little Pillager."
What will the Shirt Girls do when the football season is over?
"Basketball," they said in unison.
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