Lakeville South was ready for the examination. The Cougars knew the questions, and on Week 1 of the football season at least, had the answers.
The Cougars’ players and coaches knew what people were curious about – could they maintain the standard of play that took them to a 40-5 record over the last four seasons, even with a lot of new starters taking the field this year?
“I think that’s fair,” head coach Ben Burk said. “Anytime you lose some really good guys who have played a lot of really good football, it’s an obvious question for the players coming back.”
Lakeville South jumped ahead of Wayzata early on Sept. 1, taking a three-touchdown lead midway through the second quarter before winning 41-27 in a matchup of two of the last three state Class 6A playoff champions.
Burk said the chance to have extra practices the last couple of seasons as they prepared for high-intensity playoff games is proving beneficial for this year’s players. “I told our kids before we played the game that shy of Maple Grove, I don’t think anybody has practiced as many times as we have the last few years. During the playoffs, we’ve had 21 or 22 extra practices. It gave us the ability to have our younger kids engaged for longer, and that’s going to pay off.”
The Cougars haven’t lost their knack for explosive plays. Their four first-half touchdowns came on a 41-yard pass, 77-yard run, 66-yard fumble recovery and 99-yard kickoff return. It also appears there are some big plays left in the No. 28 jersey once worn by school career rushing leader Carson Hansen, who’s now at Iowa State. The player wearing No. 28 now, junior Connor Cade, had the 99-yard kickoff return in the second quarter as well as a 27-yard touchdown run in the fourth that halted a Wayzata rally.
“We know as a program that we’re talented,” Cade said. “Even though we lost some great guys like Carson (Hansen), Ryder (Patterson) and Owen (McCloud), we think we have guys who can fill their shoes and make plays.”
South’s playmakers against Wayzata included running back Jay Winters, who caught a 41-yard touchdown pass from Gaven Dean in the first quarter and threw a block that sprung Cade on his kickoff return in the final minute of the second quarter.
In the second quarter, the Cougars defense held Wayzata on downs at the South 1-yard line, with senior linebacker Mitch Rateliff making the tackle on fourth and goal. That led to a 77-yard touchdown run by Jonah Shine and a 14-0 South lead.
A Wayzata running back dropped the ball on the Trojans’ next possession and it bounced into the hands of Cougars senior Joe Hager, who returned it 66 yards for another score. “I saw the play going outside, I saw the running back and then I saw the ball on the ground,” Hager said. “It was a perfect bounce for me, and I scoop-and-scored it.”
Wayzata pulled within 27-21 early in the fourth quarter before Cade’s rushing touchdown completed a 10-play, 70-yard Lakeville South touchdown drive.
“You don’t get to control what other people do, you get to control how you respond,” Burk said. “That’s something we talk about all the time. And that was a huge response.”
Hayden Egner scored on a 1-yard run with 1 minute, 13 seconds remaining.
The Cougars will play at Farmington at 7 p.m. Friday. Farmington is 0-1 following a 17-7 loss to Mounds View in its season opener. Following that is the backyard showdown at Lakeville North on Sept. 15. Lakeville South has won the last four games in the rivalry, including 34-0 last season.
Cade said there’s a lot of work to be done but saw progress during the Wayzata game.
“The biggest thing for our offense was the difference between the first half and the second half,” he said. “We started to move the ball better. The first half, it was rough. But we made some plays on special teams and had an outside linebacker (Hager) return a fumble for six. The second half, we dominated the line of scrimmage, and that was important.”