Centennial's path back to the state tournament begins in earnest in the last week of the regular season. With four games against the top teams in the ultracompetitive Northwest Suburban Conference in the final seven days, the No 5-4A Cougars will be well-tested before the start of the Class 4A, Section 5 playoffs.
And Tuesday's game at No. 4-4A Maple Grove could well be a preview of the section championship.
The Cougars (12-4, 9-3) beat Maple Grove and the Crimson's standout pitcher/hitter Ava Dueck 4-0 in the section tournament a year ago on their way to a third-place finish at state. But with Dueck in the middle of a record-breaking season (her 10 home runs this season is a school record), the Crimson will be tough to beat this time around.
Maple Grove (15-2, 10-1) can clinch at least a share of the conference title with a victory on Tuesday. Dueck is 10-2 with a 1.18 ERA and 127 strikeouts in 83 innings as the Crimson's primary pitcher. She also is hitting .512 with 27 RBI.
The Cougars are looking to reverse a recent slide, having lost three of their last four games. The Cougars have outscored opponents 80-12 in 11 victories but have been outscored 25-10 in their four losses.
Centennial has a lineup dominated by seniors going on to play collegiately. Pitcher Alyssa Montero, headed to St. Catherine's, is 6-0 with a 0.68 ERA and hitting .304 with two home runs. First baseman Rylie Perkins (Bethel) is hitting .346, center fielder Coryn Jacobson (St. Thomas) is hitting .385 and shortstop Madi Newman (Minnesota State Mankato) is hitting .478 with three home runs.