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Minneapolis South vs. Minneapolis Southwest soccer game. South's Oscar Campbell (15) and Southwest's Zachary Neiberger (13) headed a goalie kick. (MARLIN LEVISON/STARTRIBUNE(mlevison@startribune.com)

 

In wilting heat and under a steady stream of planes headed to Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport, the Minneapolis Southwest boys’ soccer team took full advantage recently of a bit of recent respect thrown its way.

The soccer players practiced on half of the football field, sharing space with the football team.

It was a small victory for a program that had earned a notable degree of recognition.

When the Minnesota High School Soccer Coaches Association state polls were released on Labor Day, the Lakers — who improved to 5-0 with a 3-1 victory over archrival Minneapolis South on Saturday — were ranked No. 1 in Class 2A.

The last time Southwest was No. 1 was 1991, when coach Jamie Plaisance was a senior forward on the team.

“It says that the people in the high school soccer community are aware that we have a good team,” Plaisance said. “Anybody would be lying if they told you they didn’t want that kind of recognition.”

The ranking felt a bit sweeter considering the turbulent season the Lakers had in 2012. Southwest was expected to be among the top soccer programs in the metro, only to have the season collapse amid injuries and discontent.

“Last year, our team chemistry wasn’t there,” said defender Taylor Funk, who shares team captaincy with attacker Diego Rios. “This year, things are different. Everyone is supportive of each other. We’re competitive in practice; when it’s over, we’re good friends again.”

It’s not as if Southwest suddenly has made the jump elite status. The Lakers have long represented Minneapolis Conference soccer well. They have made seven trips to the state tournament. In 2010, they were undefeated and advanced to the Class 2A state championship game before falling to Apple Valley. They advanced to the state semifinals the next season.

The program’s success is frequently cited as a primary source of motivation for the 2013 team.

“The pride at Southwest is unbelievable,” Plaisance said. “They really want to represent the school and the city. It’s not 17, 18 guys getting together to kick a soccer ball. There’s a purpose behind it.”

For much of the team, playing for Southwest is about more than the here and now. Former players routinely come back and support the team. Little brothers grow up watching and thinking about the day they’ll don the purple and white.

“I remember back in fourth grade when my brother was a sophomore on the team,” Funk said. “They asked me to be a ball boy. They were playing Edina. Someone scored a goal from, like, 35 yards out. As soon as I saw that, I said ‘I want to do that some day.’ ”

The players realize they have yet to accomplish anything tangible. They’ve also discovered that rankings can be fickle. Despite winning twice since being ranked No. 1, the most recent set of polls saw Southwest slip to No. 2, behind Edina.

That, Plaisance said, might be a good thing.

“Being No. 1 is nice, but it doesn’t help you reach your goals,” Plaisance said.

It doesn’t take away from the Lakers being thought of as the best team in Class 2A, if only for a week.

Said Rios: “It’s nice to be on top and looking down.”

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