It was two minutes before 8 a.m., but Brian Vossen’s clock said otherwise.
“You’re late, what’s your reason?” Lakeville North’s football coach barked at one of the last two players jogging to early-morning drills.
“Young guy, you’re late,’’ Vossen said to the other. “What’s your reason?”
Nine months earlier, the Panthers’ dream 2011 season had come to a screeching halt at the Metrodome when Cretin-Derham Hall made a last-second field goal in the Class 5A state quarterfinals. It was North’s only loss of the season.
During the offseason players hit the weight room for countless hours. They dedicated themselves by splitting into eight groups, each representing words Vossen felt most personified Lakeville North football: leadership, respect, legacy, loyalty, character, desire, relentless and tenacity.
Then came Monday, Aug. 13, the start of two-a-day practices that are the staple of football teams across the metro area in preparation for a new season.
And just three days in, Vossen’s tone and message to the jogging twosome spoke volumes about the team’s preparation for another run at a title in 2012: Mediocrity will not stand.
“This is a proving ground,” senior linebacker Alex Wood said later. “You find out who the guys are you can count on and will give their all when there’s not much left in the tank.”
'11 best guys’
Ask someone who’s been through two-a-days and you’ll hear stories about unbearable August heat, players doubled over from exhaustion, running drills as punishment for bad execution, even occasional vomiting. But this year, unseasonably cool weather and a trip to a local pizza buffet at the end of the first week took some of the edge off the grind at Lakeville North.
On the first day, players took a knee at the 10-yard line around Vossen. The third-year head coach spelled out his expectations.
Nodding to a group of sophomores on an adjacent field, Vossen said: “We’re watching them as much as we’re watching you. We’re looking for the 11 best guys.”
Every day — rep after rep, drill after drill — is a new challenge, he went on. Every player is required to be on the field each step of the way. The only acceptable excuse for an absence is a death in the family.
“That,” Vossen told the attentive varsity squad before releasing them for three consecutive days of conditioning, “we understand.”
When they came back on the fourth day, competition had heated up. Near the end of practice, a half-dozen players had to be separated by the coaching staff after a hard hit led to several after-the-whistle bumps.
Vossen voiced his displeasure, grabbed the jersey collar of one player and loudly admonished another. But he could not fully hide a smile as he walked away, later admitting he loved the intensity.
Not the same preparation
Vossen played for Lakeville in the 1990s and went through the same ritual year after year on the same field he now controls.
But the preparation isn’t near what Vossen went through when he was a player. A standard formation was eight players in the box to stifle the run. Blitzes were man-on-man.
Players now begin preparing for varsity play calls around the same time they’re first taught simple algebra in school.
“There is no way any program had as many athletes training for that common goal 15 years ago,” Vossen said. “There was a heart of four or five kids, and then a wave of a few [other] guys each day.”
This summer, the Lakeville North weight room was filled to capacity. Above the entrance a slogan reads: “Tough times don’t last. Tough people do.”
“The Monday after Christmas break we all came in here and said, 'This is it. We’ve got to find a way to win it all,’ ” Vossen said after a morning weightlifting session ended. “From January on it’s been every day. Constant. And for two weeks during two-a-days, it’s just football. Life is good.”