In just a few weeks, Lakeville South’s football program went from another rebuilding season to something radically different – and from the Cougars’ perspective, much more exciting.
Instead of hoping to win one playoff game, the Cougars are taking a “Why not us?” approach to the postseason as one of the teams still standing in the Class 6A tournament. At 5-5, Lakeville South has the worst record of the eight Class 6A survivors, but the Cougars are convinced they have become a team nobody is anxious to play.
Four of the five South victories have come in the last four weeks, including road games against Cretin-Derham Hall and Champlin Park in the first two rounds of the playoffs. South, which has reached the state quarterfinal round for the first time since 2010, plays Woodbury (9-1) at 7 p.m. Friday at Osseo High School.
South players and coaches say they want to keep the focus on this week’s game, but it’s impossible to ignore what could be down the road if the Cougars upset Woodbury. If Lakeville South and Lakeville North win their quarterfinal games, their fans would get the opportunity to blow the roof off U.S. Bank Stadium, where the teams would meet in the semifinals Nov. 16. Lakeville North (10-0) takes on St. Michael-Albertville (7-3) in a Class 6A quarterfinal Friday night at TCO Stadium in Eagan.
For now, though, the Cougars are savoring a playoff run that seemed improbable as recently as Oct. 5, when they lost to Rosemount 31-15 to drop to 1-5.
“The South program had been known for being down for a while. It’s suffered in recent years,” said senior captain and two-way standout Jared Stewart. “Making that turnaround is important for our seniors. I take a lot of pride in it. It’s my last season of high school football, so going to state is huge for me. I always dreamed about it. It’s big for me and I know it is for my friends.”
Even when the Cougars lost five out of six, they still believed they were laying the groundwork for success, coach Tyler Krebs said. The winning streak has cemented that belief.
“As long as we keep playing the way we have the last few weeks we can play with anybody,” Krebs said. “Every game it comes down to a few plays, and if we keep making them we can keep going for another couple weeks.”
The obvious difference between the Lakeville South team that was 1-5 and the Cougars team that has won its last four is offense. Lakeville South scored just 63 points in its first six games, almost half of which came in a victory over an Eagan team that went winless.
South averaged 47 points in its last four games, including a 43-34 victory at Champlin Park on Nov. 2 in the Class 6A second round. The Cougars gained 481 yards, including 418 on the ground, against a Rebels team that won seven games.
At some point after introducing its new T-formation attack, South went from having trouble reaching the end zone to being a team that was tough to keep out of the end zone.
“I think it’s a lot of little things that came together,” Krebs said. “We played a really tough schedule the first half of the year. Then the schedule became easier for a couple of games, we had success, and that success kind of snowballed. Making a change at quarterback (Reid Patterson took over for George Brekke, who switched to tight end) has opened up the offense for us. And we have great assistant coaches who have continued to coach our guys and they’ve gotten better.”
Two South running backs gained more than 100 yards against Champlin Park. Senior Tavian Laden had 176 yards on 25 carries and three touchdowns. Junior Johnny Shabaz gained 107 yards on nine carries and scored once. Stewart rushed for 80 yards on 14 carries and had two touchdowns. Stewart also ran for three two-point conversions.
“We felt as the game went on if we handed the ball to Jared Stewart he’d get 3 yards,” Krebs said when asked about South going for five two-point conversions. “The nice thing about this offense is you’re running your short-yardage offense the whole game, so you get a feel for what works and what doesn’t if you need to get 3 yards in a pinch.”
Stewart and defensive back Grant Scheuermann led the South defense with 10 tackles each, while Daniel Attoh and Josh Loveless made nine stops each.
Champlin Park passed for 378 of its 475 yards, so pass defense became a point of emphasis in South practices this week.
“We need to stay on top of the passing game,” said Stewart, who plays linebacker on defense. “Last week in Champlin that was something that was tough for our defense. Woodbury will have seen that film and will know what to do. I think they will try to pass the ball on us a lot.”
Stewart said players have noticed more excitement in the school about the football team’s playoff run, and they’re anxious to continue. Krebs said players and fans lingered on the Champlin Park field for about 45 minutes after South’s victory last week, when the Cougars received the section championship trophy that goes to the final eight teams in Class 6A.
“People were happy to see the fruit of all the labor,” Krebs said.
“We talked about playing our best football in weeks nine, 10 and 11, and that’s where we are,” the coach added. “We’ve caught lightning in a bottle and we’re going to try to ride it as long as we can.”