Unfamiliar penmanship on the dry erase board in the Lakeville South locker room told senior running back Johnny Shabaz something was amiss in the lead-up to his team’s football game on Sept. 20.
Shabaz knew the handwriting did not belong to head coach Tyler Krebs. Moments later, offensive coordinator Ben Burk walked in.
“Coach Krebs is the first one in the room all the time, so I thought, ‘Uh-oh, what’s going on?’ ” Shabaz said.
Burk kept it simple. He told players that Krebs, who led the program to a surprise Class 6A state tournament semifinals appearance last November, would not be on the sideline against Eastview.
“Everyone’s heart dropped,” Shabaz said.
The Cougars won the game to go 3-1 for the season. Three days later, they learned Krebs, in his third season as head coach, had resigned amid an investigation by Apple Valley police into “suspected breach/unauthorized computer access” at Eastview High School.
The team just kept on winning. Lakeville South (7-1) was ranked second in the final Associated Press poll and earned one of the four No. 1 seeds for the Class 6A playoffs. The Cougars open play at 7 p.m. Friday at home against No. 8 seed Roseville.
“They are super-resilient kids,” Burk said. “For a long time, that was the knock on this community, that the kids weren’t resilient and weren’t used to having negativity. But they just have it in the back of their minds now that whatever happens, we’ll overcome it.”
Rallying after midseason changes is becoming commonplace. A year ago, the Cougars installed a new offense and transformed from an irrelevant team to a state tournament semifinalist.
The straight-T rushing attack, borrowed from Elk River, features three running backs in the backfield and misdirection that keeps defenses guessing and the chain gang hustling to keep pace.
“Most of the people in the stands say they don’t even know who has the ball,” said Shabaz, who leads the team with 582 rushing yards and nine touchdowns. “It fools a lot of people. When I first watched film of Elk River, I was like, ‘Where is the ball?’ ”
The sleight-of-hand offense fueled a charming story last fall as a No. 6 playoff seed went further than anyone expected. This season, against the backdrop of Krebs’ stunning departure, there’s a poignant symbolism in how the offense represents the program’s identity.
Now you see the narrative: Up-and-coming football team loses its coach and falls back into mediocrity. Now you don’t: Two weeks after the departure of Krebs, Lakeville South crushed defending Prep Bowl champion Lakeville North 34-19 and entered the discussion of Class 6A title contenders.
These playoffs offer the challenge of fulfilling expectations. Playing at U.S. Bank Stadium brought the underdogs Cougars glory. Not returning this year would invite criticism.
“People know we’re not a six-seed coming out of nowhere,” said Shabaz, a co-captain. “People overlooked us and now they are going to take us more seriously because they know we’re the real deal this year.”
Senior defensive back/tight end and co-captain George Brekke, who played football with most of the senior class since third grade, said the class of 2020 “all treat each other as leaders. That’s helped us, knowing we have each other.”
A similar brotherhood exists among the coaching staff and helped eased the unprecedented transition. Like the players, Burk found himself “right away kind of in shock” when the Krebs news came down.
“But as I was standing there with all the coaches, they said, ‘We got this. Let’s take care of business,’ ” Burk said. “It was a great job by all of the assistant coaches jumping in and filling gaps. That allowed me to just take a deep breath and do my part.”
The Krebs investigation remains active. Apple Valley police captain Nick Francis said Thursday that authorities “are working with school district IT groups to analyze the computer access data. If it is determined a crime was committed, we intend to file charges.”
Krebs, a business education teacher at Lakeville South, remains on paid administrative leave.
Shabaz said the sting of Krebs’s departure took a few weeks to subside.
“It was odd not having him there,” Shabaz said. “It was a sort of emptiness.”
Senior linebacker Nick Austin, the team leader with 52 tackles, said he keeps in contact with Krebs. Austin called his former coach “a great guy and a great mentor.”
“On senior night, he texted all of us to thank us for being part of the program,” Austin said.
Players want to make a strong playoff run one more source of pride for the school, the community, Burk and the assistant coaches and Krebs.
“Last year we were hunting everybody,” Austin said. “Now everyone is hunting us. The next step is to hopefully make it to the championship game and win that.”