You’re going to have dreams anyway, and the way Tavian Laden sees it, you might as well dream big.
Laden, a Lakeville South senior linebacker and captain, understands that making the Cougars a football power again could be a long-range project. That doesn’t mean they can’t aim high this year.
“The goal is to put us back on the map, get us to state and win state,” Laden said following a South practice last week. “That’s my vision, and I want it to be everyone else’s.”
Lakeville South was 4-6 last season and reached the second round of the Class 6A playoffs in Tyler Krebs’ first season as head coach. The Cougars believe the pieces are in place for a better season in 2018, but like a lot of programs they’ll battle a numbers problem. Fewer than 50 players are expected to dress for varsity games.
“We’re still probably a couple years away from having the numbers we want,” Krebs said. “For now, we’ll have to be creative in what we do. We’re teaching everybody a position on offense and a position on defense out of necessity because in both varsity and JV games we’ll have some guys playing both ways.”
Krebs has dealt with this before. He helped build a new team as an assistant coach at Eastview High School, then spent six years as head coach at Burnsville, stabilizing a struggling program before leaving to coach football in the school district where he grew up.
Krebs said he always has built teams on defense and a running game. “Our philosophy always has been, our best players will play on defense and they’ll play some offense if they have to,” he said.
Laden and fellow captain Jared Stewart are cornerstones of that philosophy. They’re returning starters at linebacker and “they’ll carry the ball some because they’re two of our best players,” Krebs said.
T.J. Nelson, another senior, will play linebacker and running back. Other returnees on defense include senior lineman Aaron Rose, senior defensive backs Grant Scheuermann and Josh Loveless, and sophomore linebacker Cade Ahrenholz.
“We had a really good defense last year,” Stewart said. “There were a few problems on offense where if we could have put those things together we would have been a hard team to beat.
“Our D-line is a little bit different this year. We were used to having some bigger guys, but now we have smaller guys who are quicker and we’re putting in some packages for them.”
Lakeville South scored fewer than 10 points in seven of its 10 games last season – all six losses and a 9-6 victory over Burnsville.
“A big key to our success will be how our offensive line plays,” Krebs said. “The issue we had last year is what we did up front. With another year in our strength program, we think we’ve gotten better.”
Rose is considered the Cougars’ best lineman, even though at 6-foot-1 and 205 pounds he doesn’t have prototypical offensive lineman size. Seniors Zach Howard (6-6, 250) and Jordan McCall (6-3, 260) and junior Kyle Lattery (6-2, 270) come closer to fitting the physical profile.
“When we get off the bus, we’re not going to scare a lot of people with our size, but they’re physical, tenacious, and if they play low and fast we have a chance to do things on both sides of the line,” Krebs said.
Also returning is tight end Riley Mahlman (6-8, 245), who played regularly last season as a ninth grader. By the time Mahlman is a senior he might be one of the state’s most highly recruited players, Krebs said.
Stewart, Laden, Nelson and junior Johnny Shabaz will have chances to run, and the Cougars consider junior quarterback George Brekke to be a running threat as well.
Brekke started several games last season, and “that year of experience was huge for him,” Krebs said. “Just the way he carries himself now, he doesn’t look or play like a junior. He looks like a senior.”
The Cougars were better at reducing mistakes in the second half of the 2017 season and hope to do that from the start in 2018. They also tried to create bonds between players.
“Last year there weren’t that many people that cared about us,” Laden said. “So it’s kind of been about reaching out to people and being nice to them. We set up events where guys could bond and make it a family instead of just a football team.”
And now? “We can always improve on something,” Laden said. “But we’re preparing, and we’re definitely going to do good this year.”
(Games 7 p.m. Friday unless noted)
Aug. 30 (Thur.): Edina
Sept. 7: Eagan
Sept. 14: at Burnsville
Sept. 21: Lakeville North
Sept. 28: at Minnetonka
Oct. 5: at Rosemount
Oct. 12: Shakopee
Oct. 17 (Wed.): at Farmington