MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) – School is out until the fall and we’re in the heart of the summer, but prep football season isn’t far from getting underway.

Programs across the state will be starting their fall camps in about a month, and games will get started in about six or seven weeks. Many coaches see now as the most crucial time of the year. Because coaches can’t hold formal practices with their teams, it’s on the players to get in the weight room, get stronger and work on their own skills to get better before fall camp starts.

Leading up to the prep football season, the WCCO Prep Blog will provide previews at a glance of several conferences around the state, mainly focusing on the Twin Cities metro. I’ll start with one of the biggest and most competitive conferences in the state, which is just south of the metro. It’s appropriately called South Suburban Conference.

Lakeville North is the early favorite

Since it started a few years back, the South Suburban Conference seems to always be loaded with talent from top to bottom. Every game is tough, every game is a grind and there really are no breaks in the schedule. That’s especially true in this league, where it seems like a conference title could be lost with any slip-up.

The same is true this year as four teams from the 10-team league were in the Class 6A State Tournament. Lakeville North and Prior Lake both finished 2012 with 7-1 records in league play, but the Panthers got revenge in the playoffs with a 23-3 win over the Lakers.

Lakeville North also had to get past conference foe Rosemount to have a shot at the Prep Bowl, which they did with a 28-7 win over the Lakers at the Metrodome. The Panthers played Eden Prairie tough in the state championship game before coming up short 28-7 to the Eagles.

Not to be overlooked this year is Apple Valley, which finished 6-2 in the league and participated in the Class 5A State Tournament. The next four squads in the conference race last year show just how brutal this league can be on a yearly basis. Eastview finished 5-2, Rosemount and Lakeville South 4-3 and Burnsville was 3-5.

All of those schools, with perhaps the exception of Burnsville, have a chance to be the champion of one of the top leagues in the state by October.

I have to give the early edge for the South Suburban Conference race to Lakeville North, the 2012 champions and state runners-up to Eden Prairie. They’ll have a new quarterback but will ride the running game of Jamiah Newell, one of the league’s top rushers last year. The Panthers always seem to make big plays with the football, and their defense is as tough as any in their league.

If there’s a “sleeper” in the conference, it might be Rosemount. The Irish, which feature a punishing run game and often times deceptive pass game to go along with a stingy defense, won three straight games in the Class 6A playoffs last year to get to the state semifinals.

I also would keep an eye on Eastview, which is always a competitive program. The Lightning got in a groove last season, winning six of its last seven games before losing a close game in the quarterfinals 35-21 to Wayzata in the Class 6A State Tournament.

The leagues that are the most competitive can also be the hardest to predict. You simply don’t know in a given week what will happen or who will prevail. It also makes every week that much more intriguing when that conference title is virtually up for the taking every Friday night. It’s largely what high school football is all about: Watching great programs which know and respect each other very well battle it out between the hash marks.

So to recap, five of the 10 teams in the conference last year played in a state tournament. The top three teams (Lakeville North, Prior Lake and Apple Valley) finished the season ranked in the top 10 in their perspective classes and some programs have more coming back than others. That’s the key to the whole season for teams: Which can best mesh the returning veterans with the newcomers that can make an immediate impact regardless of their position on the field.

I like Lakeville North to win the South Suburban Conference in a league race that will be as close as it’s ever been. Look for Prior Lake, Eastview and Rosemount to be right in the mix as well.

Take a seat in your nearest bleacher and enjoy the ride when football season starts. It always makes for a fun year of football when any one of four or five teams can come in and win their conference championship.

There will be a great match-up in the South Suburban Conference every week that will have league title and playoff implications. After all, it’s why the athletes are in the weight room now getting ready for the season. It’s what makes all the work and dedication to the product worth it in the end.


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