Three Northwest Suburban Conference teams — Blaine, Champlin Park and Maple Grove — reached the Class 4A baseball state tournament last season.
This season, Centennial started better than them all.
The Cougars charged to a 4-0 record, highlighted by a victory against Champlin Park. Strong pitching and timely hitting served them well in each game. While a fast start is nice, the goal is a deep postseason run. Players are counting on their talents, as well as intangibles such as a love of the game and strong practice habits, to make it happen.
“From the first day of tryouts I could tell everyone was serious,” senior pitcher Kyle Nordby said. “There was a different tone, a different attitude. Everybody is onboard. That’s a big reason why we started off hot.”
But Centennial’s success traces back to last season. Coach Rollie Goertzen mixed in a handful of sophomores and by season’s end, Centennial featured five underclassmen. The class of 2018 took another step last summer, winning the VFW state tournament.
This spring, as many as seven juniors have starting spots. Among the contributors are shortstop Dylan Grant, the leadoff hitter. Catcher Wyatt Schoephoerster swings a good bat. Casey Lieser holds down third base and also pitches. Trei Driskell, one of the first sophomores to get a varsity call-up last season, hits for power.
“They are all competitive guys who want to win,” Nordby said.
The feeling is mutual among the senior class. Weather cancellations spread out game dates and allowed Nordby, the staff ace, to win three of his team’s first four games.
“He’s a great leader who stays cool in bad situations,” Schoephoerster said. “He really mixes his fastball and off speed pitches well. He’s a high-level pitcher.”
Backing up Nordby and the rest of the pitching staff is senior center fielder Bryan Pierson, a strong defensive presence who keeps the Cougars solid up the middle.
Consistency in the lineup fueled Centennial’s strong start. The Cougars averaged 8.6 runs per game in their first three victories. They edged Champlin Park 1-0 by bunching up quality at-bats. A walk to the No. 9 hitter was followed by consecutive singles and the game’s only run.
Last year, Goertzen said, the team hit just .220 in conference games and survived by manufacturing runs. This spring, “there is not a big drop in hitters six through nine,” he said.
The good vibes took a hit last Monday against Eden Prairie, however. A 4-2 loss saw a Centennial pitcher walk a run home. At the plate, the Cougars struck out a combined 13 times — five times looking at the final strike.
“We talked about having a better approach to hitting and being more aggressive early in our at-bats,” Schoephoerster said.
The bad game, Goertzen said, started with prom Saturday night and no school Monday. Players were a little tired, out of their routine and not as sharp, he said.
“We didn’t have the energy we usually have,” Nordby said. “We battled, but we learned a good lesson. Either you’re prepared to play or you’re not prepared to play.”
Rain canceled a chance to try and regroup the next day against rival Blaine. The team practiced inside, but players noticed the spark remained.
“We were upbeat in the gym,” Schoephoerster said. “We know we have to keep learning to get better.”
Nordby said a little adversity early in the season will help Centennial come playoff time. And his faith remains in a group that knows when to have fun and when to focus.
“I’ve never had so much fun while working so hard,” Nordby said.