Analyzing his team’s strengths, Lakeville North girls’ soccer coach Jeremiah Johnson prefers not to single out any one player. That’s not only because the 2015 version of one of the state’s perennial powers is exceptionally deep, top to bottom, with high-end talent.
But more importantly, it’s a culture thing, Johnson said.
“We have a lot of really great kids on this team, really good leaders,” he explained. “And since the end of last season — we had a team meeting after the season, talking about building a team culture that’s conducive to everyone. No cliques. And everyone has the same goal and the same focus.
“It’s been really incredible the way they’ve focused on that and really done it.”
That’s one of the many reasons that Johnson, now in his second season at the helm, and the rest of the Panthers have high expectations as they get set to open their season on Thursday at Minneapolis Washburn, the 2014 Class 1A state runner-up.
“We’re very excited to get started,” Johnson said. “This group has a lot of confidence in itself and in each other, and the coaches do, too.”
Sometimes results create perceptions. Lakeville North has the most Class 2A state tournament appearances of any girls’ program since 2009, including a current streak of four consecutive trips to state.
And, sometimes, perceptions can create unrealistic expectations, Johnson said.
A year ago, the Panthers rode a 14-game winning streak — a run in which they gave up just four goals — into the Class 2A state semifinals. But a lot of the talk surrounding the team stemmed from its 2-2-1 start to the year.
“A lot of people were talking about a ‘slow start’ and we thought that was unfair,” he said.
The two losses came from Eagan, the state’s top Class 2A team and eventual state champion, and Minneapolis Washburn, which was the top-ranked team in Class 1A for much of the fall. The one tie was to perennial power Wayzata.
Throw in that it was Johnson’s first year as head coach, giving him and his staff a truncated preseason that offered very little time to come together “as a team,” he said. Once the Panthers did, though, they took off.
“It was an amazing experience [going to state], and we fell a little short of our goal — it wasn’t our original goal [of a state title], but one we redefined as we went,’’ he said. “This year, we’re looking to capitalize on that.”
Johnson likes to think of the season as six separate competitions: the South Suburban Conference schedule; the team’s crosstown rivalry with Lakeville South; the yearlong jockeying for the top seed in Section 1 of Class 2A; the second tournament itself; seedings for the state tournament, and, finally, state tournament play.
The goal for 2015? Sweep all six, Johnson said.
The Panthers return all but three starters from a team that finished 16-4-1 last year. They’re ranked No. 3 in the preseason Class 2A coaches’ association poll. Key top players include defenders Hannah Cade and Temi Carda, and senior captains Alexis Tousignant and Lillie Lyon.
Still, Johnson would rather focus on the process, and wait until later to see how the team comes together.
“We just want to really focus on becoming one, single unit,” he said. “That culture change is already pretty obvious, and the girls are really buying into it. It’ll be fun to see what they can do.”