Panthers believe their window has not closed

State runners-up looking to make another playoff run

Lakeville North coach Brian Vossen is trying to chart a course to take the Panthers back to the Prep Bowl. Photo by Mike Shaughnessy
Lakeville North coach Brian Vossen is trying to chart a course to take the Panthers back to the Prep Bowl. Photo by Mike Shaughnessy

It was not a happy group of Lakeville North football players that trudged into a local fitness club to lift weights one Saturday morning last November.

The night before, they strode into the Metrodome convinced they were going to break the Eden Prairie-Wayzata era of domination in Minnesota large-school football. A 28-7 loss in the Class 6A championship game at the Prep Bowl left them wondering what was next.

“It was hard to get up the next morning to go and lift,” North offensive lineman Ryan Gigstad said. “But we had to go right back to building our team.”

Following an 11-2 season, a South Suburban Conference co-championship and a Prep Bowl appearance, people outside of the North program are expecting the Panthers to take a step back this year. Everybody in the North program, especially coach Brian Vossen, knows this.

“We thought there might be a big drop-off at some positions,” Vossen said. “But after watching these kids during the summer and in two-a-days, we now think that drop-off might not be nearly as big as we expected.”

The Panthers have some issues, to be sure – they’ll start a new quarterback and have to replace graduated defensive playmakers such as Alex Wood, Mitch Johnson and Karl Finkel.

But graduation did not clean all the talent off the Panthers’ roster. They return Jamiah Newell, an 1,100-yard rusher last season, and lineman Gregory Menard, who is projected as one of the South Suburban’s top defensive players.

“One thing people might not realize is we bring back all of our interior offensive linemen, and our fullback and tailback,” Vossen said.

Newell, at 5-foot-9 and 170 pounds, might not look like a workhorse running back but appearances deceive, the coach said.

“First of all, he benches 300 pounds,” Vossen said. “He’s a tough kid, and he doesn’t take a lot of big hits. And when he gets into the open field, I don’t know who’s going to bring him down one-on-one.”

Returning offensive linemen Gigstad and Zach Blake will be among the players trying to open holes for Newell, who might get a lot of carries early in the season as North’s passing offense evolves.

North’s defense the last few years has emphasized speed over size – out of necessity, because the Panthers didn’t have a lot of big players. This year, “we’ve got a handful of guys who are 6-3, 6-4,” Vossen said, and they can run.

“We definitely still have great speed,” said Menard, who had 12 sacks last season. “We can get to the ball and be physical. I think we’ve been playing well together so far.”

Other key players on defense include Zach Beier, who saw some playing time at safety last year, and Jesse Cardenas, a 205-pound linebacker. Cardenas’ brother Jordan, who did not play football last year, also could contribute on defense.

North won’t have an easy start to the season as it plays Lakeville South and Eastview in the first three weeks. And numbers always will be an uphill fight for Lakeville North, one of the smallest schools in the South Suburban Conference and Class 6A.

Eden Prairie, last year’s Prep Bowl opponent, had about 75 percent more students in the top three grades. Vossen said the Panthers long ago stopped worrying about enrollment comparisons. “At the end of the day, only 11 kids get to be on the field at a time,” he said.

Newell said they will be 11 motivated players.

“We got to be part of the success the last two years,” he said. “Now the end of our (high school) career is coming up, and we want to make something of this season.”

LV North football
(All games 7 p.m. Friday unless noted)
Aug. 29 (Thursday): Lakeville South
Sept. 6: at Bloomington Kennedy
Sept. 13: Eastview
Sept. 20: Bloomington Jefferson
Sept. 27: at Prior Lake
Oct. 4: Burnsville
Oct. 11: at Eagan
Oct. 16 (Wednesday): at Rosemount