Down by 10 points with 3:54 remaining in the second half, the Lakeville South girls’ basketball team needed a run against Chanhassen. The Cougars struggled all night to keep up with a sharp-shooting Storm squad, which had just hit back-to-back three-pointers.

Facing a possible first-round exit in the Section 2, Class 4A playoffs, Lakeville South head coach Angela Iverson-Ohnstad turned to a lineup that featured three freshmen — Julia Durham, Lela Sellers and Brianna Miller — and juniors Maddie Wolkow and Grayson Schroeder.

The Cougars’ next four possessions sealed the season: two turnovers, a blocked layup and a missed free throw on the front end of a one-and-one. Final score: Chanhassen 57, Lakeville South 47.

But the youthful team left a marker in that Feb. 27 game for next year.

“It’s a learning experience,” Iverson-Ohnstad said. “They’ve gotten it done this year, and this will be a group that does some big things next year.”

The playoff loss, in the minds of the players, was the start of something bigger. The Cougars’ 17 wins were the most in school history. With a young and talented core returning next fall, their expectations are only getting higher.

“We’ve turned this into a winning program,” Wolkow said. “This was one of the best seasons in South history. You can’t complain, but we’ll be achieving more next year. Watch out.”

Strong foundation

Two years ago, the Cougars ended the season with just one win against 25 losses. Last year, they were 9-18.

“You look at the big picture, and you know that things aren’t going to change over night just because you want them to,” Iverson-Ohnstad said. “It’s hard work; it’s going to be hard work. I told them that (going 17-10 this year) is the progress we want to see.”

Iverson-Ohnstad came to Lakeville South before the 2011-12 season, after spending time as an assistant with crosstown rival and perennial 4A power Lakeville North.

From the get-go, she saw the potential in the Cougars’ young group of girls, starting with Wolkow, the team’s point guard. And Iverson-Ohnstad expected a big jump in the win total this year.

Then Wolkow broke her wrist playing fall basketball.

“Having Maddie out for two months, we knew we were going to have to rush some (freshmen) along,” the coach said. “And there were bumps in the road, kids figuring out where they fit.”

On Dec. 18, the Cougars were just 4-5.

“At first, we were really nervous,” Miller said of herself and her fellow freshmen. “But eventually you have to look at it as you’re just playing, and go from there.”

When Wolkow returned after Christmas break, the Cougars started to bond.

Lakeville South won nine of its last 11 games, including a 58-53 upset of Eastview on Feb. 19 and a narrow 70-63 loss to conference champion Bloomington Kennedy. At 12-6, the Cougars finished fourth in the South Suburban.

That doesn’t mean they’re satisfied with steps they’ve taken this year. And it doesn’t mean that 10-point loss to Chanhassen stung any less.

“I think (the perception) of our team has changed,” Wolkow said. “And our goals have too. We want more, and to go further. This isn’t how our season will end next year.”