ON MINNESOTA'S SOUTHWEST PRAIRIE – The old hometown does not look the same. The old house is no longer standing. There's no old elm tree that served as the backstop for front yard batting practice.

And despite what the scoreboard reads in the gym that dazzled us when it opened in the late '50s, the Fulda Raiders are now a memory, and likely to remain so as family farms continue toward extinction, small town populations further age and only civic determination keeps the doors open to schools that carry the hometown name.

My family moved from Fulda to Prior Lake early in the summer of 1962, before my senior year in high school. There were 66 students in Fulda Class of '63 and only 50 in a then-small Irish enclave of Prior Lake.

"We had 81 seniors in our Fulda class in 1981,'' said Sheila Crowley, who works for the Murray County News in nearby Slayton.

Crowley had been lobbied to take some freelance photos on Monday night as a boys' basketball game was played in what I still refer to as the "new gym,'' even though it's six decades old.

These were not the Fulda Raiders taking on an opponent from the Red Rock Conference. These were the Heron Lake-Okabena/Fulda Coyotes taking on the Mountain Lake Area/Comfrey Wolverines in one of three games to be played this winter in Fulda. The other six home games in this delayed season are set for Okabena.

There was some discussion on Monday afternoon among school officials as to the size of Fulda's Class of '21, due to students taking classes through other schools. The number of seniors was determined to be 17.

"That's extra small for us," said Colby Pack, the Fulda athletic director and boys' basketball coach. "Most of our classes at the elementary school are into the 20s."

What became clear to Pack and others in the middle of the previous decade was that football, even the 9-Man variety, was not going to remain possible numerically for the Fulda Raiders.

The closest high school was Murray County Central. That's what they call it now; to generations of Fuldans that school 12 miles north remains Slayton, the county seat, the bigger burg, the rival for the ages.

Fulda and Slayton played basketball for "The Goat." The boys' team had to win both games in a winter to claim the prize.

The wooden Goat would have gotten no better than a "C" in shop class from Mr. Bristol (who gave P. Reusse a "D" to get rid of him), but the gyms were bursting and emotions were high for those games vs. the Slayton Wildcats.

Old rivalries didn't play into the failure of Fulda to join with Slayton in a full-scale athletic pairing. In fact, Fulda has been sending its wrestlers and cross-country runners to Murray County Central for some time. Fulda has produced wrestling champs with MCC, and Fulda's Morgan Gehl was the girls' Class A cross-country winner in the fall of 2019.

"Murray County Central wasn't a fit for either of us," Pack said. "Football, we would have been going from 9-Man to Class AA. We would have moved a class in basketball, too.

"We found a football match with Heron Lake/Okabena for the fall of 2018, and then we added girls' basketball and spring sports to the pairing. It's not perfect, since it's 20-some miles between schools, but it worked well enough so we added volleyball and boys' basketball in 2019-20.

"Plus, we didn't have baseball and HLO didn't have golf. Now, we have those for participants from both schools."

Heron Lake and Okabena are villages 4 ½ miles apart. It's a quick drive unless you get caught waiting for a freight train to pass in the middle of Heron Lake.

They competed intensely against each other as the Heron Lake Falcons and Okabena Bluehawks until consolidating school districts in the summer of 1978.

Since then, these twin towns have become experts on athletic pairings. Heron Lake/Okabena athletes have been Scarlet Knights, Silver Bullets, Quasars, Wildcats and now Coyotes, partner with various small towns.

Quasars? "That was before my time," said Jason Fisher, HLO's athletic director. "That's when the school was called Southwest Star Concept."

Note: Les Knutson, coach of Heron Lake-Okabena's state title-winning girls' basketball team in 1981 (Fulda has a pair of those in 2006-07) and area sports historian, pointed out a period when several HLO teams were the Quasars and other teams were paired with Round Lake-Brewster as the Southwestern United Wildcats.

Whatever the journey to get to HLO/F, it's been working out well in the pandemic-damaged athletic seasons of 2020-21. The Coyotes were 5-1 in football and 10-1 in volleyball and the boys' basketballers improved to 5-2 after a dismantling of Mountain Lake/Comfrey on Monday.

It was 15 below outside on the prairie, but Pack's trapping defense was cooking before the virus-limited crowd.

The Coyotes are 6-6 and 6-5 up front with Isaiah Schmid and Carter Drent, have excellent athletes Zack Thier and Eli Fest as wings, and Drent's brother, sophomore Sawyer, is a point-style guard.

Thier is the lone starter from Fulda, leading coach Pack to offer this candid assessment:

"We have a total of three seniors or juniors from Fulda playing basketball. We would be using eighth-graders if we weren't paired right now. And HLO would have a similar problem in girls' basketball, if not for the pairing."

There are 24 seniors at the high school in Okabena, including Hailey Liepold, Meakin Bang and Grace Kilian, standouts during last fall's abbreviated and successful volleyball season.

"When we started with Fulda, it took some time to get to know each other," Liepold said. "Once that happened, we became friends as well as teammates."

Kilian said: "The biggest adjustment was getting home later during the weeks when practices were in Fulda. The rest of it has been great."

It's not a strict system, but generally that's how it works for the paired teams: practices are held in Fulda one week and Okabena the next.

There are team buses, although athletes are allowed to drive themselves with parental permission.

"The good thing about practice in Fulda is there's a Casey's Market where we can stop and pick up food," Bang said.

In the interest of full reporting, a Casey's employee was asked to verify and she said: "They stop a lot. Those Heron Lake-Okabena kids like our pizza."

Another indication of the many changes in Minnesota's southwest corner is that there's hockey to be found in the larger towns — including Windom, 12 miles from Heron Lake on Hwy. 60.

Bang's father, Paul, is the superintendent and principal of Heron Lake-Okabena schools.

"My dad's from Edina and he loves hockey," Meakin said. "I've been playing hockey since I was 4 or 5. That's my winter season: hockey in Windom."

Okabena and Heron Lake are in Jackson County, Fulda in Murray, and the schools also draw students from Nobles and Cottonwood counties.

School to school, it's 23 miles from Okabena to Fulda, if you take the shortcut that brings you out not far from the landmark Talcott Lake State Refuge.

Which requires some final, grandfatherly advice to the Coyotes' commuters:

There are a couple of sweeping curves on that paved back road, so don't be texting, because that's one law we disciplined Raiders, Falcons or Bluehawks made sure never to break as teenage drivers in the early '60s.