Finally, Thomas Barber will allow himself to dream a little.

The brother of former University of Minnesota standouts Marion Barber III and Dominique Barber has made a name for himself as a robust linebacker despite playing his entire high school career at Armstrong, a program that has won only four games in the past three seasons.

A college football career awaits — he’ll be a Gopher next season, following in the family tradition — but that’s the future. What Barber always has dreamed of was the chance to lead a team that was playing in the present, with hopes and goals and the potential for more victories than losses.

Under second-year coach Jack Negen, Armstrong appears to be headed in that direction. At the very least, the Falcons are laying a foundation. Numbers are up, pushing 90 athletes in grades 10 through 12. Team attitude is good. Apathy has been replaced by anticipation.

Barber was so eager to start the season that spent the night before the first official day of practice watching the clock count down slowly.

“I could hardly sleep,” Barber recalled. “I was pacing around my room, touching my football stuff. I was so excited to get out there.”

In some football programs, winning is practically a birthright. Put in the work, collect the trophies. But not at places such as Armstrong, which was winless as recently as two years ago. Or Burnsville, which has endured eight consecutive sub-.500 seasons. For those teams, seeing others have success was like watching the neighbors have a party to which they weren’t invited.

Not this year, however. Giving hope to all the little guys who’ve slogged and slugged and fought through the drudgery of a football practice, it appears that this is the year those invitations arrive.

“I’m being completely honest when I say that this is the most confident I’ve ever felt about this team,” said Burnsville quarterback Kamal Martin, who, like Barber, has given a verbal commitment to Minnesota. “I’ve always felt confident, but this year I have such high hopes.”

Changing the mentality

For both Armstrong and Burnsville, the rise to respectability has been slow and far from certain. It’s taken more than just weight rooms and wind sprints. The biggest challenge: overcoming a losing mind-set.

“I’ve taught at Armstrong for 11 years and I used to hear the things other kids would say,” Negen said. “They’d say things like, ‘Oh, the football team is so bad’ and ‘They won’t win.’ ” The players would believe it. When I took the job last year, we hadn’t been real successful and heads were down. We try not to talk about wins and losses. We talk about trying to get better every day. The focus is on trying to change the mentality around here.”

Part of that starts with continuity. Constant change in both coaching staffs often undid all of the progress made during the season.

“When I started five years ago, I was the fifth [head] coach in eight years,” Burnsville’s Tyler Krebs said. “Great programs have stability and there was no stability. I saw the potential at Burnsville, but it takes five to seven years to develop a program.”

It didn’t help that Burnsville played in the South Suburban Conference, arguably the state’s toughest football alliance. The Blaze often had talent equal to that of its rivals, just not enough if it.

“When I was younger, we had great athletes like Cam Jones and C.J. Smith, but I guess we didn’t have the right stuff around them to succeed,” Martin said.

This season marks the fifth year of Krebs’ five-year plan to bring Burnsville football back to the levels it experienced in the 1980s and early ’90s, when the program won four state championships and had a runner-up finish.

So far his plan, which focused on coaching stability, improving strength and developing a pipeline through the Burnsville youth program, is largely succeeding.

“We won a playoff game for the first time in a long time last year,” Krebs said. “We still don’t have the numbers I thought we’d have — I’d hoped we’d have 100 juniors and seniors out by now, but instead we have 60 to 70 — but our top 20 kids are what we want a top 20 to look like. They allow us to compete with anybody.”

Feeling the aura

At both schools, the change in expectations is palpable. Practices are run at a brisk clip and the players are engaged. A good play brings backslaps and chest bumps from teammates.

“Most importantly, the players need to be having fun,” Negen said. “We have some talent and we have some leaders. It feels to me like our players are having fun.”

Armstrong offensive lineman Tommy Larson agreed.

“Everyone has been excited to start this season,” the senior captain said. “We won our homecoming game last year for the first time in years. I think we all started to feel then that things were different. It’s a lot more fun.”

Burnsville offensive lineman Benn Olson also has a college football future, having recently committed to Northern Illinois. For the next few months, however, his football world won’t extend past the south metro suburbs.

“I’m elated to get going,” said Olson, the anchor on one of the state’s best offensive lines. “There’s an aura around this team. To be remembered as the team that turns things around is one of our biggest goals.”

Still, the past is never too far away. Barber, with three underwhelming seasons still fresh in his mind, won’t allow himself to dream too big. His goals remain modest.

“I’d like to win five games [in the regular season], be above .500,” he said. “And try to win our first section playoff game. More if we can. That’s really our goal.”