With all due respect to the 20 other teams taking part in softball state quarterfinals Thursday, the spotlight will shine brightest on four smaller schools playing games scheduled for 1 p.m. at Caswell Park in North Mankato.
The only two undefeated teams in the entire three-class tournament -- Cherry and Kerkhoven-Murdock-Sunburg -- square off on one field in a Class 1A quarterfinal game while four-time defending Class 1A champion New Life Academy takes the field against tournament newcomer Sebeka on another.
The Eagles' four consecutive titles is a record; if they win a fifth, it will be with mostly new faces. Only two starters returned and nine players appeared in new positions.
"Things just clicked into place," New Life Academy coach Mick Ramey said. "We've had some losses, but I don't mind that. A good loss sometimes is better than a sloppy win."
The Eagles' roster has two seventh-graders, five freshmen and no seniors.
As for who will feel more pressure early Thursday afternoon -- New Life Academy or the two undefeated teams -- Ramey pointed to the unbeaten teams.
"Just another reason we should seed these teams," he said. "But one will come out a winner and hopefully have to play us."
New Life Academy is the only team back to defend its title. Sebeka, meanwhile, is one of four Class 1A teams making its debut, joining Cherry (in the field for the first time as a non-co-op), Eden Valley-Watkins and Red Lake Falls.
First-year Farmington coach Paul Harrington, who guided Totino-Grace to state tournament appearances in six of the past 11 years, has his alma mater at state for the first time since 2003.
He plans to use the same lineup of a dozen or so players who got the Tigers to this point. That group also provided a little more drama than he would have liked.
Harrington paged through his scorebook after his team clinched a berth in the Class 3A field and found the Tigers (17-4) had trailed in 10 of their 21 games this season.
"It says a lot about this team," Harrington said. "I've seen so many kids roll over when they get down. We had a five-game streak where we were losing at some point of [each game], and we came back and won. It's kind of our trademark. If we get behind [at state], we might not win it, but we won't think we're out of it."
Albany, which lost in last year's consolation final, is the only team returning from last year's Class 2A bracket.
Weather has been known to disrupt the tournament schedule, but graduation ceremonies already have played a role in Class 3A. Any second-round game involving Bloomington Jefferson will be played at 12:30 p.m. while Forest Lake's second-round game will be played at 2 p.m.