Last weekend the Lakeville North activities department Twitter account pointed out there’s a seat available in U.S. Bank Stadium for every Lakeville resident who wants to watch Friday night’s football playoff game between the community’s two high schools.
And that meant every Lakeville resident. The stadium seats more than 66,000 people, and Lakeville’s 2017 population was almost 64,000.
“I saw that,” Lakeville South offensive lineman Josh Schultz said. “That was funny.”
“I think all of Lakeville’s going to be there,” said Schultz’s teammate, Max Hoffman.
Now the Cougars want to keep their end of the bargain by making sure the fans’ trip downtown was worth it. Lakeville South goes into the Class 6A semifinal game as a heavy underdog to undefeated and No. 1-ranked Lakeville North, but at the end of their practice Tuesday at the Savage Sports Dome the Cougars sounded like a team that believed they could pull a shocking upset.
Coach Tyler Krebs made the point to the team and asked the players to picture what it would be like to leave U.S. Bank Stadium with a playoff victory, while adding it would take an nearly error-free game to do it.
Krebs reiterated that a few minutes later while speaking with a reporter. “We feel if we play our best game we’ve got a shot,” he said.
Kickoff for the Cougars-vs.-Panthers game is 7 p.m. The winner plays Eden Prairie or Blaine in the Class 6A championship game at the Prep Bowl at 7 p.m. Friday, Nov. 23, also at U.S. Bank Stadium. Eden Prairie and Blaine play their semifinal game Thursday night.
Lakeville is assured of having a team in the state large-school championship game for the first time since 2012, when Lakeville North lost to Eden Prairie. Lakeville teams have reached championship games seven times previously, winning in 1988, 1992 and 2003, all before the North-South split. Lakeville South reached the Prep Bowl in 2006, the second year the school was open, losing to Eden Prairie 21-14.
Lakeville South extended its winning streak to five games with a 28-14 victory over Woodbury in the Class 6A semifinals in frigid weather at Osseo High School. The Cougars (6-5) moved above .500 for the first time all season.
Playing Lakeville North just adds intrigue to a game that would have been the South program’s biggest in more than a decade regardless of the opponent.
“None of us are scared. At the end of the day, we wanted to play North,” Hoffman said. “We wanted that challenge.”
The game features two teams with successful rushing offenses, albeit with vastly different philosophies. North has a massive line and two fast, shifty running backs in Brian Curtis Jr. (his school’s single-season rushing leader) and RaJa Nelson.
Lakeville South changed offenses this season, going to a T-formation attack that emphasizes precision and deception to make up for a lack of size. The offense started producing big plays the last few weeks. South is averaging about 43 points a game during its winning streak.
“After the Shakopee game (a 48-20 victory Oct. 12), when we started putting up the points, that gave everybody a little bit of hope,” Schultz said.
Both teams like to run, but somewhere along the way a big passing play could affect the outcome. Lakeville North defeated Lakeville South 28-3 in a regular-season game Sept. 21, a game in which Krebs said “we did a pretty good job stopping the run, but they hurt us in the passing game because they’re talented.”
Lakeville South didn’t throw a pass against Woodbury but did more than enough damage on the ground, rushing for 346 yards and an 8-yard average per carry. Tavian Laden and Johnny Shabaz broke big plays, running 40 and 55 yards for touchdowns in the first half. Jared Stewart scored on a 2-yard run early in the second quarter as South took a 14-0 lead, then put the game out of reach with an 18-yard run for the Cougars’ final touchdown with 1 minute, 6 seconds remaining.
Laden rushed for 145 yards, Shabaz had 85 and Stewart 74.
Dean Cardis and Mason Dahlager each had 11 tackles for South, and Stewart and Josh Loveless had 10 stops each.
The run-always game plan was fine with South linemen such as Hoffman. “When it’s cold, it’s a lot better to run. We can be a little smashmouth,” he said.
Hoffman and Schultz, the starting guards, each weigh less than 200 pounds. That means they’re undersized by modern football standards. But becoming familiar with the nuances of the offense helped them become effective. It just took some time.
“We’ve run it close to 1,000 times, so it’s kind of automatic now,” Hoffman said.
Still, there was some skepticism about the change.
“Last year I was an outside linebacker and then got switched to guard,” Schultz said. “Coach Krebs said at the end of the year I might be playing guard and I kind of thought it was a joke.
“It turned out he wasn’t kidding.”
Reid Patterson moved to quarterback at the beginning of the South surge and has run the offense efficiently. The biggest difference from the Cougars’ 1-5 start to now is “our offensive execution is night and day from where we were then,” Krebs said. “It’s taken us the whole season to learn the offense. We’re playing so much faster and we’re able to pop some big plays because of all the misdirection we’re doing.”
Now the Cougars say they want to try it again against their crosstown rivals.
“We felt we played well in the first half of the first game, then fell apart,” Schultz said. “We’re looking forward to a rematch.”