Tighten your chin straps and fasten your seat belts, Century football fans, the run of the gantlet is about to begin.
Century sits second in the statewide AAA football rankings, courtesy of a 4-1 start. The Patriots have defeated Grand Forks Red River, Mandan, Dickinson and Williston after dropping their season opener to West Fargo Sheyenne.
Those five teams have a combined 6-19 record.
The rest of the path is considerably more thorny. Century plays host to fourth-ranked Minot on Saturday night, followed by games against Fargo Davies, third-ranked Bismarck and Legacy. Those four teams total out at 12-8.
"How we prepare and practice this week is important because (Minot) is a good football team. ... It's always a great game when we play Minot," said Devyn Vance, a 6-foot-3, 225-pound senior who is a two-way starter at tight end and defensive end.
"We're exactly where we want to be as far as the West Region going into these games with the tougher teams," Vance added.
With a 3-0 regional record the Patriots sit atop the heap. Vance said it's important to stay there. En route to the last two state AAA championships, the Patriots have had to defeat West Fargo in bruising semifinal battles on the road.
Vance said he'd just as soon not tempt fate by venturing into the Red River Valley in the playoffs for a third straight season.
"(The home field) is a big deal," he noted. "We'll try our best to control that this year."
Minot leads the all-time series with Century 27-20, but the Patriots have won seven of the last 10 meetings. The two teams have split their last six encounters, a series that includes Century's 28-21 victory in the 2015 state championship game and Minot's 28-10 regular season win last fall.
Vance concedes the final four regular-season games constitute a challenging run, but warns the Patriots can't get too wrapped up in the long haul. He believes a football season has to be viewed as a series of hurdles, not as a single entity.
"It's a week-by-week process. You've got to be patient," he said. "... The end goal is a great motivator, but it can be a huge distraction for the short term."
Minot stands 3-2 with back-to-back victories over Williston (28-0) and Legacy (36-0). The Magicians dropped their season opener to top-ranked West Fargo (35-20), defeated Fargo Davies (59-32) and fell to Bismarck (35-14).
Since losing its opener 16-14 at West Fargo Sheyenne, Century has prevailed over Grand Forks Red River (42-8), Mandan (14-7), Dickinson (34-0) and Williston (41-0).
Minot ranks first in the West in scoring offense at 31.4 points per game and third in scoring defense (20.6). Century top's the defensive statistics (6.2 ppg) and ranks third in scoring (29.0).
Century coach Ron Wingenbach said last week's victory at Williston was especially rewarding because the Patriots were firing on all cylinders.
"Between the defense and special teams we created five turnovers, and if memory serves we scored on all five," Wingenbach said. "(The defense) put us in four-down territory, and that allows you to do some things (offensively). ... We kind of had a hint of that the week before against Dickinson."
Indeed, Century blocked a punt, blocked a field goal attempt and filched a pass against Dickinson.
Wingenbach said there's no doubt the next month is going to be an unforgiving test for the Patriots.
"The depth and physicality of our (upcoming) opponents will come to the forefront now," he observed.
As the gantlet awaits, Wingenbach can take comfort in the knowledge that the Patriots have improved with each game.
"As we looked at the big picture at the start of the year we knew our offensive line would be a work in progress and we'd have to find some depth in the defensive line. We're on the path to getting better," he said.
This week includes another game with significant playoff implications. Legacy (3-2, 1-1 West Region) ventures to Mandan (2-3, 1-2) on Friday for the opening of the Starion Sports Complex. Legacy is coming off one-sided losses to West Fargo and Minot, while Mandan had its best offensive effort in a month with a 31-6 victory at Dickinson.
Bismarck visits Williston on Friday in the week's only other regional game. Dickinson meets Sheyenne at West Fargo for an inter-regional contest.