Before the biggest game in the biggest football class Friday night, the final message from one of the head coaches to his players was this: “It’s our night to play and let’s get after it! Let’s be special!”
A couple of hours later, the other coach said to his triumphant team, “You came out and you sent a message to the state! And people will hear it!”
Between those two little speeches, a wonderful thing happened. A pair of undefeated teams met in a high-pressure game played in front of an overflow crowd on a windy and warm night as friends, neighbors and relatives cheered for their teams in the annual battle for bragging rights in Lakeville.
Parents who graduated from Lakeville High (which is now North High) have completely changed their game-day wardrobes, ditching Lakeville/North red and white for South cardinal and gold as they cheer for children who are Cougars. The family theme even extends to the head coaches. South’s Larry Thompson had a stellar 27-year career at Lakeville High – where his teams played in five Prep Bowls and won three state titles -- before taking over at the new school when it opened in 2005, and North coach Brian Vossen played under Thompson in the late 1990s at Lakeville.
North scored first, scored second, led 10-6 at halftime and opened things up with an interception and another touchdown. Grant Erickson returned an interception 16 yards for a touchdown to put the Panthers in front 23-6 in the third quarter, and that was enough to secure North’s 30-6 victory.
If there was a star of the game, it was North senior quarterback Trey Heid, who ran for two scores and threw for one. He has played an understudy role this season to more heralded South senior Mitch Leidner, a big, strong lad who has committed to the University of Minnesota. But much like his team, Heid sent a message Friday with his performance as well as with his postgame comments. Trey talked about the success of the Cougars’ running game, never spoke of himself but mentioned six teammates by name: A.J. Miller, Mike Manikowski, Aaron Baker, Zach Zeimer, Ben Blake and Pat Fitzgerald. That’s a team guy talking.
“We were really confident coming in here,” Heid added. “We expected this. We knew we were a good team, we knew they were a really good team and we had to play our best game.” (To see a video interview with Heid, go to the MSHSL Facebook page.)
The teams came in as the only unbeatens in the South Suburban Conference and angling for the top seed in the Section 1 playoffs. South is ranked No. 4 and North is No. 5 in the Associated Press Class 5A poll. This game was the first time since South opened that both teams were unbeaten and ranked when they met in the crosstown showdown. And it was a blast.
“This is pretty cool, isn’t it?” Thompson said to me during pregame warmups, by which time nearly every seat was filled. The old coach talked about two factors that he figured would be big: the wind and turnovers. He was right on both counts. The team with the wind at its back had a definitive edge, and South’s ability to run the football and transform a turnover into points was crucial.
Heid was intercepted on the first drive of the second half, but Leidner was picked off a few plays later and Heid ran five yards for a touchdown to make it 17-6. Major turning point.
“We got ‘em going against the wind when it was10-6, and they scored,” Thompson said. “That was big.” And the bigness grew when Erickson swiped another Leidner pass and took it into the end zone. Ballgame.
“They were better than us,” Thompson said. “Defensively they’re fast and we needed to run the ball better.”
The Cougars players were celebrating with the “One Community, Two Cats” trophy that goes to the winner of the series when North assistant coach Bob Kovich,whom I have known for a long time, gave me a handshake and hug. I was congratulating Bob -- an assistant to Thompson at Lakeville for years before Larry moved to South – when he summed up the evening perfectly.
“Those guys are my best friends,” Kovich said as he looked toward the South coaches. “I hate this week.”
Thankfully, the big week is over and the battle for Lakeville bragging rights has concluded. And if they meet again in the section playoffs? It will be one heck of a show.
--Photo galleries featuring the game, the fans and the halftime show can be seen on the MSHSL Facebook page.
BY THE NUMBERS
*Schools/teams John has visited: 47
*Miles John has driven: 3,619
--Join the MSHSL on Facebook by clicking on the Facebook button on the right side of www.mshsl.org. John Millea is on Twitter at twitter.com/mshsljohn