The Blooming Prairie football team enjoyed a storybook season last year, but it had a bad ending.
The Blossoms went into the Class A state semifinals with a 13-0 record and a No. 4 ranking, but second-ranked BOLD smothered the Blossoms 37-7 at U.S. Bank Stadium.
Prior to that loss, it was a remarkable run for Blooming Prairie, especially considering that the Blossoms lost senior quarterback Seth Peterson to a season-ending injury in the final game of the regular season.
Gabe Hagen, who as a junior wideout was a prime target for Peterson, said the Blossoms go into this season with a clear mission.
"We want to finish it off and win a state championship," he said.
If that happens, Hagen will likely play a huge role -- literally and figuratively.
Hagen, simply put, is huge. He's 6-feet-3, 250 pounds and still growing. He's accepted a scholarship to play tight end at Minnesota State University, Mankato next year, but Blooming Prairie head coach Chad Gimbel said the Blossoms will likely keep him split wide to better utilize his unique set of skills.
"Gabe's got size and speed, which is a great combination for football," Gimbel said. "He's faster than he looks, he adjusts to the ball well, and he has some of the best hands on a big man that I've ever seen.
"He's a smart kid who takes coaching well, and when you couple that with his love for competing, he's got all of the attributes that you need to be successful on the football field."
He certainly was successful last year. In 14 games, Hagen caught 44 passes for 1,057 yards and 18 touchdowns.
And the scary thing is, he often wasn't the primary target.
"Last year we split him out and used his size to create mismatches outside, to make teams bring a safety over to him," Gimbel said. "That allowed everyone else to have single coverage."
When that happens this year, the Blossoms should be able to capitalize. Their other primary wideout, Karson Vigeland, is 6-5 and weighs 210 pounds.
"I like our matchups outside this year!" Gimbel said with a laugh.
But Hagen, knowing that he'll be doing a lot of run-blocking at Minnesota State, said he's eager to test his mettle in the trenches.
"Last year, we didn't run any tight-end formations," he said. "This year we're putting in some plays with me at tight end, so we'll see how it goes. The first few days of practice I've been working with the linemen, and I definitely want to learn to be a better run blocker."
While Hagen's best chance to impact games will likely be as a wide receiver, he'll also be on the field for plenty of defensive snaps, and Gimbel said teams will always need to know where he is.
"He's a great defensive end," Gimbel said. "I mean, everyone talks about his offensive ability, but he had 11 1/2 sacks for us last year. We'll stand him up sometimes, sometimes have him get down in a three-point stance. He's quick, plus he's really strong. He squats more than 400 pounds, so he can come around the edge or bull-rush people."
The Blossoms lost just five seniors to graduation last year, so this team returns plenty of talent and experience. The biggest question, of course, is who will fill Peterson's shoes at quarterback.
The obvious choice is Kaden Thomas, who stepped in nicely last year to lead the Blossoms through section play and into the state semifinals. Still, as the first week of practice took place this season, Gimbel wasn't ready to hand Thomas the reins.
"Our quarterback position is still an open competition right now," he said. "Kaden did a great job and led us into the state semifinals last year, but we also have Drew Kittelson, a big, tall sophomore who has good arm strength. We'll see how that shakes out. But ultimately we'll have one quarterback. I won't platoon them."
Regardless of who is taking snaps, it's a safe bet that he'll send plenty of passes Hagen's way, especially if he's facing single coverage. In such cases, Gimbel said Hagen doesn't even have to be open.
"We like to say that with Gabe, it's not a 50-50 ball, it's more like 80-20," Gimbel said. "One-on-one, we believe he can get 80 percent of those. We work a lot of plays like that for him."
Some of those plays will have Hagen running down the sidelines, while others will have him coming over the middle, where he's a terrifying sight for defensive backs.
"I don't care where I'm at on the field," Hagen said. "I just want to go get the ball."