Teams win through preparation, Lakeville North middle linebacker Jesse Cardenas said. They win during the hours spent in the weight room or the final drill of a two-a-day practice.

“Win at everything you do” — that’s the Panthers’ motto, Cardenas said.

“It’s on and off the field, having the right mindset, the right work ethic, the right character,” he said. “We know we have the chance for something special, and we’re going to do everything we can to put ourselves in that position.”

That position is in the Class 6A Prep Bowl this fall.

After three consecutive trips to the state tournament and returning what could prove to be the metro’s best defense, Lakeville North has its sights set on the school’s first state championship since the district split Lakeville High School into North and South in 2004.

As with any team with championship aspirations, it will be the journey to get there that will define this Panthers group, coach Brian Vossen said. The closeness of the team’s defense is already starting to write that definition.

“We’re like brothers,” said Jordan Cardenas, a free safety and identical twin brother of Jesse Cardenas. “We know where each other are on the field. We know that each guy is going to do his job. It makes it really easy. We trust each other.”

The Cardenas twins are among the eight returning starters, all seniors, on defense. Between them, outside linebacker Tristyn Hanson and a slew of other talented defenders, Vossen said, Lakeville North could have its most Division I-caliber players on one team at one time.

Talent, though, won’t be enough. Hanson said the road to a state title still “goes through Eden Prairie,” the three-time big-school champions who ended the Panthers’ season in each of the last two state tournaments. Lakeville North competes in the South Suburban Conference, which Hanson considers to be the toughest in the state.

“We have to be focused on getting better every single day, because the days we’re not, those other teams are,” Hanson said.

The Panthers have been working out each week on Monday, Wednesday and Friday, and holding an informal practice once a week. There are also passing leagues and recruiting camps. Some players, like the Cardenas twins, work with personal trainers as well.

“They’re putting in a lot of work, but it’s not all football all the time,” Vossen said. “We’re only actually practicing football about an hour a week. The rest is just them trying to get better and improve and work.”

And build team chemistry, Hanson said.

Both Hanson and Jesse Cardenas were a part of Lakeville North’s 2012 Prep Bowl runner-up squad as sophomores. The biggest thing they learned from that experience, Cardenas said, was the tightness of that group.

“They never slacked off and they played for each other,” he said. “That’s what we’re trying to do this year. I mean, getting to play with my brother and my best friends is amazing. We’re all doing this together, and that’s what makes all the hard work worth it.”