Football preview: Panthers aiming for an even better 2012
Season opens on Thursday against Lakeville South
The Lakeville North football team is coming off one of its best seasons ever, but the Panthers hope to top it this fall.
North was one of the top teams in the state in 2011, earning the South Suburban Conference and the Section 1-5A titles while winning 10 consecutive games.
A swarming, opportunistic defense was a big reason for the success. The Panthers allowed an average of 12.1 points per game last season.
The good news for Panther fans and bad news for anyone else is the defense is still stacked with most of its starters back.
Mitch Johnson, who led the team in tackles, has suited up again at linebacker along with Alex Wood, Josh Robinson and Alec Larson. Sacks leader Karl Finkel anchors a stout defensive line with Charlie Peters and Greg Menard Jr.
In the secondary, Kyrell Newell, Zach Creighton and Grant Erickson were stalwarts on an already-strong defense.
As good as they were in 2011, the defensive players said they can be even better this season.
“We’re a step ahead,” Wood said. “We were able to put everything in right away. We already know the base defense, we’re just putting the toppings on right now.”
So how do they improve on last year, where most of the same guys held teams to less than two touchdowns a game?
“We always want to improve,” Johnson said. “We want a few more turnovers.”
While the offense might not have as much experience returning, the defense figures it can help by forcing turnovers and putting the offense in good field position.
“We want to take the ball back and put it with the offense,” Peters said.
The offense took a blow during graduation last spring with quarterback Trey Heid, receivers Joel Oxton and Charlie Hayes, and offensive lineman A.J. Miller moving on. North averaged about 30 points a game last season.
“The defense often has the upper hand in early practice, but it’s been nice to see our offense step up,” head coach Brian Vossen said. “We have some really great runners and the quarterback has been a two-year starter.”
“I’ve been working with (offensive coach Bob) Kovich since eighth grade,” Creighton said. “I’m very comfortable. I feel like I’m ready.”
One thing that he hopes to use to his advantage is reading defenses after playing defensive back for years.
“It gives me a step ahead when I know what the other guys are going to do,” Creighton said.
Brandon Morgan, North’s leading rusher from 2011, is back along with wide receiver/tight end Ben Blake.
“We’re acclimated to the speed and the mindset of where we need to be,” Blake said. “We look pretty quick out there. It doesn’t hurt that we’re going against what I think is the best defense in the state every day in practice.”
Offensive linemen Zach Zeimer and Zack Blake hope to create a wall in front of Creighton to help ease him in.
“We have a bigger and stronger offensive line than we’ve had in the past,” Vossen said.
With all those returning players from a team that won the South Suburban Conference, expectations are high.
“If we don’t end this season with a win we’re going to be disappointed,” Creighton said.
The Panthers kick off the season at Lakeville South at 7 p.m. Thursday, Aug. 30. The home opener is Sept. 7 when Bloomington Kennedy comes to town. Homecoming is scheduled for Sept. 28 against Prior Lake.