In addition to weightlifting and organizing team activities, Lakeville South’s Jake Stewart spent much of his free time this summer working the phones.

The senior guard, one of five team captains, made a point of calling 50 incoming underclassmen. His message was simple: They were valued members of the football team. There would be no tolerance for disparate factions.

“Our motto this year is ‘Leaving a Legacy,’ ” Stewart said. “This could be our yea, and we know that. Part of leaving a legacy is getting everyone together.”

Showing preferential treatment to upperclassmen, particularly seniors, used to be commonplace in high school football. But that attitude is fading away as teams realize dividing players can work against them. It’s something the Cougars are trying hard to avoid as they approach their home opener Friday night against Burnsville.

“Last year, it didn’t feel as much like a family as it could have been,” said senior linebacker Kyle Martin, also a captain. “We weren’t as tight a group as we wanted to be. This year, it feels like more of a brotherhood. We’re much tighter.”

Junior center Eric Rousemiller can attest to the feeling of isolation that can exist for younger players. Rousemiller, considered a Division I offensive line prospect, has started at the position since he was a freshman. He remembers vividly how awkward his first year felt.

“I hadn’t been in school with those guys except in second grade,” Rousemiller said. “There would be times after games when the [offensive linemen] would be hanging out and I wouldn’t go. I mean, they were 18. I was 15. There was a separation there.”

In 2014, a season that started with high hopes collapsed in an avalanche of mistakes. The Cougars finished 3-6, one of the few sub-.500 finishes in coach Larry Thompson’s long career.

“I think I’ve only had three or four years under .500. I’m not used to that,” said Thompson, who coached Lakeville for 26 years before moving to Lakeville South when the school opened in 2005. “Last year’s team was such a nice group of kids, but they never got the kind of leadership they needed.”

Adding to the frustration felt by the players is the looming presence of its rival two miles to the north. Lakeville North has qualified for four consecutive state football tournaments, as well as winning recent state championships in boys’ basketball and hockey.

“I play basketball too, and I still haven’t beaten them in a varsity game,” said senior Jack Swanhorst, another three-year starter on the offensive line. “My parents are always giving me [grief] about that.”

Said Martin: “It’s tough for us to see them go to state year after year. We haven’t had that success, but we all feel this is our time.”

Part of that is the renewed emphasis on bonding, particularly over food.

“That’s one thing we’ve stressed: No one eats lunch alone,” Rousemiller said. “We’re one football community, not a bunch of separate grades.”

While the Cougars may be feeling the bonds of brotherhood off the field, the mistakes that hurt them in 2014 showed up in their season-opening 21-12 loss to Cretin-Derham Hall. At least two potential touchdown passes were dropped and they fumbled three times. They will carry that frustration into Friday’s game.

“You have no idea how much that bothered us,” senior quarterback Will Heller said. “When we lost, every single person, whether he played or not, was down. We’re a good team, and we’re going to show it this week.”