Burnsville’s Benn Olson walked slowly off the field Friday night, head bowed, reflecting on how a game that had seemed so winnable only a few hours earlier had turned into a decisive loss.
“They’re a good team, but we’ve a got a lot of two-way players,” said the senior lineman who played both offense and defense in a 29-18 loss to Lakeville North. “We were kind of gassing at the end of the game. But it’s not an excuse. We’ve got to be better.”
Armstrong was flying high after having won first two games of the season for the first time in nearly two decades but Thursday crash-landed in a 26-6 heap at Cooper. Coupled with Burnsville’s loss that dropped it from the ranks of the undefeated, it illustrated the intangible difference between the up-and-comers and those who already have arrived.
Under coach Willie Howard, Cooper has gone from a perennial also-ran to a team that always gives opponents cause for worry, posting a 31-20 record since Howard took over.
“I tell our guys that if you come out and give me everything you’ve got, I won’t worry about the scoreboard because I can’t ask you to give more than you have,” Howard said.
Lakeville North lost nine starters from its 2014 defense — seven of whom went on to play college football — yet the Panthers are 3-0 and have a legitimate shot at their fifth consecutive state tournament appearance.
The unifying factor for both Cooper and Lakeville North has been equal emphasis on game preparation and personal motivation.
“Winning means the tradition and legacy we’ve built stays intact, no matter who graduates and who stays,” Lakeville North coach Brian Vossen said. “What never changes it the effort and the heart the kids put into the game.”
Burnsville coach Tyler Krebs, a Lakeville High School graduate, admired what the Panthers have accomplished.
“They’ve got a great program,” he said. “That’s what we’re striving to be.”
That, said Armstrong coach Jack Negen, is the attitude he’s trying to instill.
“We got our butts kicked, but it’s just one game,” Negen said. “It’s not the end of the world. We’ll come back, we’ll regroup and our guys will learn from it.”
The Week Ahead
Friday: Maple Grove (2-1) at Eden Prairie (3-0), 7 p.m.; Orono (3-0) at Holy Angels (3-0), 7 p.m.
Friday-Saturday: Southwest Minnesota Challenge, at Marshall H.S.: Thirty-two teams, including 18 of the metro’s best, converge on Marshall High School and Southwest Minnesota State University for one of the state’s elite-level tournaments.
Thursday: Hopkins Invitational, at Gale Woods Park, 2 p.m.
Wednesday: Edina at Prior Lake, 3:45 p.m. A rematch of the 2014 Class 2A final.