It’s difficult for Lakeville South’s players to say what was tougher to swallow last season – all the early season losses, or the feeling opponents weren’t taking them seriously.
That shouldn’t be an issue this season for the Cougars, who got statewide attention last year by surging to the Class 6A semifinals after winning just one of their first six games. Suddenly the Power-T offense South installed in 2018 started clicking; the Cougars averaged more than 38 points over their final six games after averaging 10.5 points in the first six.
The Cougars still could use more numbers in the program, but this figures to be the strongest and most athletic team they’ve had under head coach Tyler Krebs, who begins his third season.
“Now we’re a team people can’t overlook,” senior George Brekke said. “We go to Totino-Grace the first week and we’ll be ready. We won’t be afraid to play anybody, anywhere.”
One reason for the sustained optimism is the Cougars’ linemen seem to have become much bigger almost overnight. Last year South had an undersized offensive line but by midseason those players understood the new offense’s blocking angles – and the importance of staying low – to create seams their running backs found for big gains.
They’ll now add muscle to the equation. “(Tight end) Riley Mahlman is 6-9, 280,” said Kyle Lattery, who returns at center. “Our left tackle and right tackle are 290 pounds. I’m 6-2, 280. We understand the offense now, and we’ll also be able to move people back.”
“Everywhere I’ve been, it takes a couple of years in the strength program to get where we want to go,” said Krebs, who was head coach at Burnsville and an assistant coach at Eastview before going to South to coach in his hometown. “We’re very different than we were last year in terms of the size we have across the front. We have a little more speed and some dynamic guys in the backfield.
“We’re bigger than we were last year but we’re not at the level we were last year as far as how fast we are and how low we are. We want to get to where we were last year as fast as possible and hopefully get beyond that. There’s potential for this team to be as good or better than the team we had last year, and that’s our goal. I think we have kids who believe in that now.”
The Cougars might not be deep, but they have some premier athletes. Mahlman, who projects as an offensive tackle in college, might be the state’s top recruit in the class of 2021. He has scholarship offers from seven Big Ten Conference teams, including Minnesota, and has visited Notre Dame.
Senior running back Johnny Shabaz had more than 1,300 total yards last season and scored 13 touchdowns. Junior Reid Patterson, already one of the top basketball players in the South Suburban Conference, took over at quarterback in the middle of the 2018 season, throwing six touchdown passes and running for five scores.
Brekke, who started last season at quarterback, becomes the Cougars’ Swiss Army knife. He will play safety and tight end, and could even see some snaps at running back.
Defensive lineman Cade Ahrenholz, who also played on the South hockey team that reached the 2019 state tournament, had eight tackles for loss, four sacks and a defensive touchdown last season. Krebs said senior John Olson will be one of the state’s best kickers.
“Offensively, I think we’re going to be tough to stop,” Shabaz said. “It’s going to be fun running behind the big guys we have on our line.”
“This year we’re bigger up front and probably faster in the backfield, so it’ll be a different look,” Krebs said.
The coaches are looking for improvement from the defense. That could happen because the Cougars return senior linebackers Dean Cardis, Nick Austin and Mason Dahlager, all of whom had more than 50 tackles last season. Senior Mason Coons moves from the offensive line to the defensive side. Daniel Attoh, a sprint finalist at the state track and field meet, returns in the defensive backfield.
Seniors Willie Bastyr and Noah Fiedler will lend depth at running back, as will junior Riley Haglund. Bastyr was a state Class 3A wrestling champion last winter.
South finished 6-6 last season after losing to eventual champion Lakeville North 35-13 in the Class 6A semifinals. Krebs said one overlooked aspect of the postseason run was the extra weeks of practice the Cougars received. “We had a lot of kids who got better in that time. Teams that get there every year have that extra time to develop their players,” Krebs said.
The Cougars expect a difficult season opener on the road at Totino-Grace, which won the 2016 Class 6A championship but is coming off a rare losing season (2-7 in 2018). South’s home opener is Sept. 6 against Rosemount, a team Krebs expects to be one of the best in the best in the Metro South district. The Cougars’ rematch with Lakeville North is Oct. 4 at North.
“I’d rather play teams like that,” Krebs said. “Those are great opportunities to learn.”
(Games at 7 p.m. Friday unless noted)
Aug. 29 (Thur.): at Totino-Grace
Sept. 6: Rosemount
Sept. 13: at Burnsville
Sept. 20: Eastview
Sept. 27: Prior Lake
Oct. 4: at Lakeville North
Oct. 11: Farmington
Oct. 16 (Wed.): at Eagan