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An unusual sticker is popping up on the helmets of Centennial football players this season.

It's not a paw print or a set of claw scratches or something that relates to Centennial's Cougars nickname.

It's a sticker of a buffalo. And it's there for a good reason. Centennial's motto this season has been "Be the Buffalo."

"We've had so many things we say. That's the one we've been riding this year," said senior defensive end/part-time power back Marcus Whiting. "When buffalo see a big storm, they put their heads down and they run right through it as fast as they can. We've been embracing that, and it's been working."

It has worked to the point that Centennial (11-1) will play Edina (9-3) on Friday night in U.S. Bank Stadium for the Class 6A championship.

Centennial has long been tied to a hard-hat identity. The Cougars aren't much for flash. They aren't going to out-finesse teams, although they have been more in touch with their offensive side this year than in years past.

What Centennial does perhaps better than any team in the metro is embrace its gladiator image. There's certainly football talent up and down the lineup. Senior quarterback Daylen Cummings is a three-year starter who keeps the veer-styled, run-first offense humming and is underrated as a thrower. Running backs Maverick Harper and Ty Burgoon are a complementary inside-outside tandem that keeps defenses honest, and Whiting is a sure thing in short yardage.

There's pass-catching talent in 6-3 senior Josh Lee and 6-4 junior Kellen Binder, both of whom would get far more attention if they played for a team with more of a penchant for passing.

But that's not what Centennial is, nor is it what the Cougars want to be. They've gotten this far by being exactly who they are.

"If you ask our kids, 'Who are you?' they'll tell you, 'We're blue-collar. We're blue-collar kids that will hit you,'" said coach Mike Diggins, in his 33rd year at the school and 13th as head coach. "We've kind of ingrained that. And they really take pride in that."

For the north metro

Centennial will not only play for the first state championship in school history — it lost to Hutchinson 32-7 in the 1984 Class A championship game in its only Prep Bowl appearance — but Diggins believes that he, his staff and his players are also representing north metro football.

There's long been an undercurrent in high school football of regionality, with those who live on the north side of the metro nursing the lingering feeling that the advantages tend to break south. Maple Grove (2022), Totino-Grace (2016) and Osseo (2015) all won Class 6A titles, but 17 large-school state champions since 2000 have come from the south or west metro.

"I don't think north metro football gets the credit it deserves," Diggins said. "You watch, next year north metro, the north district is going to be very good. We lose 19 seniors, so we'll be down a little bit, but Anoka has everybody back. Maple Grove is going to be scary. Champlin Park is turning things around, and Coon Rapids is opening the door."

This year started last year

Whiting said a game in 2022 against a team from across town set the tone for this season.

"We were playing Minnetonka and we were losing 7-0," Whiting recalled, a grin creeping across his face. "Out of nowhere, they threw me in there to run the ball. On the first play, I got 15 yards. I just stayed in the game."

With Whiting as the backfield battering ram, Centennial rallied for an 8-7 victory, and Whiting scored the winning touchdown and two-point conversion run with 2:37 remaining. It wasn't pretty, but it fit the Cougars' profile, and it carried over to this season.

Diggins said he never will doubt this roster of players. He's learned the job eventually will get done.

"This group really works hard," Diggins said. "They're very quiet. They don't talk too much about the game. They just go play. Sometimes they drive me up the wall in practice because you think they're not working, but they really are. They're just very confident."