Sixth-graders took the field along with varsity candidates Monday when the Lakeville South football program started a week of summer camp.
They did many of the same drills at the same time, under the watchful eyes of Lakeville youth coaches, Lakeville South High School coaches and guest instructor Mitch Leidner, a former Cougars player and University of Minnesota starting quarterback now hoping to break into professional football.
The purpose was twofold, new varsity head coach Tyler Krebs said - to strengthen unity throughout South football and to make sure more of those sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders still want to play football once they reach high school.
After having winning records in its first seven years, the Cougars varsity has had one winning season in the last five. Decreasing participation could have something to do with that, and it's one of the first things Krebs is trying to address.
"That's probably the biggest concern. We want to have 80, 90 or 100 juniors and seniors," said Krebs, hired last spring as Lakeville South varsity head coach, succeeding Larry Thompson. We still don't have the depth we want anywhere. It's still summer, and we hope to get more kids out. Right now we've got 50 juniors and seniors who are here consistently. We hope to have more, but we don't have the ability to two-platoon right now. We'll see what happens when we start in the fall.
Krebs, whose arrival at South is a homecoming - he's a 1992 Lakeville High School graduate is trying to get the Cougars to reverse course without blowing up everything and starting over. When he got the South job, Krebs said the first call he made was to Thompson, for whom he played on Lakeville High's 1991 Prep Bowl team.
Thompson, whose teams won three state championships and made six Prep Bowl appearances in 38 years as a coach in Lakeville, stepped down after South went 1-8 in 2016. The losing had gotten to him, he admitted. He said he knew what needed to be done to stop the slide but questioned whether, at age 64, he had the energy to carry it out. So it was time to step aside.
But Thompson wasn't away for long. "I said right away I'd love to have him back in any role he wanted to be in," Krebs said. "As long as I'm here, he can do whatever he wants. He's earned that. He is Lakeville football, in my eyes. To have him be a part of it with his energy and enthusiasm, it's awesome. We're glad he's here.
Thompson will coach ninth-graders this fall (his time is likely to include his grandson) and Monday seemed excited about the prospect of concentrating on coaching without having to worry about fundraising and other off-the-field matters head coaches have to confront.
Many of the assistant coaches who worked for Thompson also will work for Krebs, who was head coach at Burnsville High School the last six years. There are some additions, including Neil Strader, who is returning to the classroom this fall after serving as activities director for Lakeville South&'s first 12 years. Strader will be an assistant coach on the 10th-grade team.
"I met with all of (Thompson's assistant coaches). They're good people and were assets to the program," Krebs said. We brought in some other guys to kind of fill in some of the gaps. We had lot of really good guys who were very invested in the community, then we added some pieces around them.”
Scott Sahli, who was strength and conditioning coach at Burnsville during Krebs’ tenure there, will come to Lakeville and work with South strength and conditioning coach Chris Rousemiller. One of Krebs’ points of emphasis at Burnsville was getting the football players to spend more time in the weight room. He and Sahli started an Olympic weightlifting program at Burnsville, which soon became one of the state’s top high school programs. They won’t have to start an Olympic weightlifting program at South because Rousemiller already has.
“My big push is we want kids to be multi-sport athletes,” Krebs said. “If they’re not wrestling or playing hockey or basketball, we want them to do Olympic lifting. Part of our success at Burnsville was we had a core group of kids who bought into that (strength) program and also went out for track. We had a nice group of kids who drove that for us, and we hope to have the same thing here. We just want them to be working every day and competing.”
Krebs said he doesn’t expect his offense and defensive philosophies to be a radical change for the South players, but some of the terminology is different, so it has helped to have 11 summer practices as well as this week’s camp. He also hopes it will help the South area’s youth players.
We're trying to install offense and defense all the way through our youth program,” the coach said. “Our youth coaches have been really good about buying into our drills and our playbook. This week our sixth- through eighth-graders are doing our drills, using our terminology, so as they go though the system they’ll understand it that much faster. I just like the idea of us being one program and working together.”
Two-a-day practices start Aug. 14 as the Cougars prepare for their season opener Aug. 31 at Edina. Two building blocks for South will be seniors Jeremiah Jacobson and Logan Gudmundson, who were running backs last year and could be running backs this year. Or they could be on defense, or maybe playing both ways. South’s depth probably will dictate using some two-way players.
“We’ll look at (Jacobson and Gudmundson) also on defense. I’m a defensive guy first, and we’re going to make sure we build a defense that’s competitive and keeps us in games,” Krebs said. “Those guys are pretty special and need to be on the field. We’re teaching every kid an offensive and a defensive position, moving kids around, trying to learn who they are and create competition and depth so when we get to Aug. 14 we have a good starting point.”
Things didn’t turn around instantly at Burnsville, which had losing records in Krebs’ first four seasons there. But there was progress in 2014, when the Blaze won four games and went to the second round of the playoffs. The last two seasons Burnsville was a combined 16-5, including a Class 6A quarterfinal appearance in 2015.
The 2016 Lakeville South team lost one of its captains, Jake Flynn, who died in a December 2015 car accident. The season started with a couple of close losses, including 14-7 to Krebs’ Burnsville team, and the Cougars never could turn things around.
“They were better than that record. It was a combination of a lot of things that went wrong,” Krebs said. “They lost a couple of close games. They were minus-15 in turnover ratio. A lot of the things that went wrong are fixable, and I think we’re a lot closer to being competitive than we were when we started at Burnsville.
“I think this senior class is pretty talented. As coaches, we expect to be competitive right away and I think our kids believe that too.”