Lakeville South walked into U.S. Bank Stadium with as much swagger as a 6-5 team could muster when it’s going against an undefeated opponent.
The Cougars were hopeful but realistic. They knew they would have to play almost perfectly to have a chance to beat Lakeville North and reach the Prep Bowl - and even then, they’d probably need a couple of breaks.
“I think our kids believed tonight we could win if we played great,” South coach Tyler Krebs said. “We didn’t play great.”
A 35-13 loss to Lakeville North in the Class 6A football semifinals last Friday ended South’s season, while North goes to the Prep Bowl looking to be the first Lakeville team to win a state championship since 2003. Lakeville North will play Eden Prairie in the Class 6A final at 7 p.m. Friday at U.S. Bank Stadium.
Lakeville South’s defense forced North to punt on its first two possessions. The Cougars went ahead early, driving 80 yards for a touchdown the first time they had the ball, and had a chance to increase the lead before a penalty derailed them in North territory. After that, Lakeville North’s running game – fueled by a big, strong offensive line and two top-flight running backs – took over as the Panthers rushed for 420 yards.
Lakeville South, however, got a lot out of a season that looked to be going off the rails less than two months ago. The Cougars were 1-5 before a five-game winning streak brought them to the state semifinals.
“What a blast this last few weeks has been, right?” Krebs said. “It’s 31-0 at halftime (in an Oct. 5 game at Rosemount that South eventually lost 31-15) and we’re staring 1-5 in the face. We’re thinking about the cliche message – ‘It’s 0-0, win a half.’ We won a half, then we won a game, then we won two games, and it snowballed from there. It’s a credit to our assistant coaches and our players. They kept battling and never gave up.”
South drove 80 yards in 11 plays for the game’s first touchdown, with Jared Stewart’s 6-yard gain on fourth down setting up a 31-yard scoring run by junior Johnny Shabaz. That was the first time South had scored a touchdown against North since 2015.
“The first drive our offensive line came out awesome,” said Shabaz, who rushed for 91 yards. “I wasn’t getting touched until 10 yards down the field.”
A short punt put the Cougars back in North territory, but a false start penalty stalled the drive and forced the Cougars to punt. North evened the game with an 83-yard, 14-play drive, and it turned out the undefeated Panthers (12-0) were just getting started. The Panthers got all their yards on the ground, with senior Brian Curtis Jr. gaining 214 on 25 carries and junior RaJa Nelson running for 177 yards on 23 tries. Nelson scored three of North’s five touchdowns.
“We put as many guys in the box as we could,” Krebs said. “What they’re good at is they’re big, they get on you and they get a push. Those backs are just really good at finding a seam, and that’s a great mesh with their big offensive line that gets on people and moves them. It’s hard to defend every gap because their backs are so good.”
South quarterback Reid Patterson scored on a 6-yard run early in the fourth quarter, but North squashed any comeback threat by driving 80 yards for its final touchdown.
The Cougars got 186 of the 189 yards on the ground, but in the second quarter lost starting guard Max Hoffman, who was injured on a kickoff return. Hoffman was taken off on a stretcher with a splint on his right leg.
Stewart, a senior running back and linebacker, rushed for 52 yards as well as making 12 tackles on defense. Defensive back Grant Scheuermann had five stops.
Lakeville North is in a position Lakeville South hopes to be soon. “Most people didn’t expect us to get here,” said Shabaz, who expressed confidence the Cougars would make another deep playoff run in 2019.
“We’re not quite there yet with our size and depth. I think we will be in a couple of years,” Krebs said. “We made a great run with the guys we have, but we’re playing with guys who are undersized, and (North) took advantage of that tonight.”
Last week’s victory was Lakeville North’s 10th in a row over Lakeville South, and North holds a 12-5 lead in the overall series.
Krebs played for Lakeville High School’s state runner-up team in 1991 and was a teacher and assistant football coach at Eastview when Lakeville opened its second high school in 2005. He was head coach at Burnsville for six years before going to Lakeville South, where he just completed his second season.
Krebs said “the whole North-South thing is new to me,” but added the Cougars are anxious to break their losing streak against North.
“I know it’s been a while, but we’re doing all the right things and when you do the right things long enough, eventually it turns,” he said. “It didn’t happen (Friday), but I believe in our kids and our program and what we’re doing, and I think we’ll get there eventually.”