Maple Grove softball coach Jim Koltes addresses Steve Ericson, his counterpart at Park Center, in e-mails or text messages as "Mr. State Champion."

Some of the ribbing the Pirates have received is not so good-natured. The past two years, the Pirates played primarily a Class 3A regular-season schedule but bumped down to 2A for the playoffs. The Minnesota State High School League assigns school classification based on enrollment and number of students receiving free and reduced-cost lunch.

Park Center, located in Brooklyn Park, earned two 2A titles and some unintended scrutiny. Back in Class 3A this season, the Pirates intend to prove themselves among the state's largest schools.

"Everybody's like, 'Oh, it's 2A. It's not 3A. It's not the big schools,'" senior pitcher Nicola Tade said. "It's like, 'Geez, give us a break.' Winning 3A would be the ultimate for us. It's definitely going to be tough but I think we'll have a shot."

A seasoned, talented core of seniors lead the Pirates. During practice last week inside the Maple Grove Sports Dome, Ericson motioned toward Tade, outfielder Kati Fern and infielder Megan VanHulzen and said, "That's our poise, those three right there. And then you put Jordan [Petersen, a senior infielder] in that mix and that's our big four. If we get our big four going, we're going to do just fine."

Tade is the classic workhorse high school pitcher. She tossed a five-inning perfect game in the Class 2A quarterfinals against Albany last season, striking out 13 of the 15 batters she faced. Fern, the leadoff hitter, sets the table and the tone. VanHulzen made the all-state tournament team. Petersen demonstrated versatility by accepting moves from right field to second base to catcher.

Hannah Schaub will hold down second base and her sister, Nicole, has third. Abby DeMorett provides a veteran presence in right field. Victoria Martinson and Samantha Swanson will platoon at first base. Junior Lauren Torborg was the first player to smash a home run in practice.

"The pieces are definitely there," Fern said. "Our offense right now is 10 times better than our defense. But as we work on our defense, if we get it to a T, we're going to be unstoppable."

The Pirates' two state championship runs have bred confidence. They battled through the loser's bracket of the section playoffs each year. Players believe the big-game experience is transferable.

"A state tournament is a state tournament," Tade said. "Playing in that atmosphere and with that pressure will make us more prepared going into games this year."

Said VanHulzen: "We never thought little Park Center would be winning two state championships. We know we can do anything now."

The Pirates also enjoyed great success against Class 3A teams. They went 27-7 against Northwest Suburban Conference opponents the past two seasons and won the conference title last season. Five NWSC schools reside with Park Center in Class 3A, Section 5, and the Pirates' strong track record against them only heightens their expectations for the postseason.

"We'd like to show we can complete with the big teams and the powerhouses," Petersen said. "I think we'd feel better about ourselves but we still like what we've accomplished in 2A."