Canon-Mac softball carries baseball-like approach into PIAA final
Canon-McMillan softball coach Michele Moeller talks with freshman shortstop Linda Rush during the Big Macs’ 3-1 win over Pennsbury in the PIAA Class AAAA semifinals Tuesday. C-M will play Neshaminy for the state title at 12:30 p.m. Friday at Penn State University.
Eleanor Bailey / The Almanac
Some softball teams can be heard blocks away, players belting out organized chants at the top of their lungs.
Others make what seems like hundreds of personnel moves per game: courtesy runners, pinch-runners, pinch-hitters and re-entries. Hempfield coach Bob Kalp will even change catchers in the middle of an inning to manipulate the courtesy-runner rule.
Canon-McMillan’s Michele Moeller basically fills out a lineup card, says a few words and walks out for ground rules, perfectly content to allow her players to dictate the outcome – the ones who started the game.
It’s an approach that began with assistant Steve Moskal coaching this current group for the Canonsburg Lady Knights travel softball organization, and it’s one that makes the Big Macs a relative anomaly when it comes to high school softball teams.
“When Coach Moskal took some of those kids – and he hasn’t had all of them – they were almost more like a baseball team than they were a cheering team,” Moeller said.
“At first when I had them, I would say, ‘Let’s go. Talk it up.’ Then I realized, that’s not them. Then when they would start to do it, it annoyed me. And I would say, ‘That’s not you. Why are you doing it?’ ”
To be clear, neither Moeller nor Moskal are criticizing the chanters and changers. If that’s what works for you, great.
But it’s not Canon-Mac. Not even close.
“We just try to play our game,” catcher Giorgiana Zeremenko said. “Coach Moskal has been coaching us this way since we were little. It’s just the way that he’s brought us up.
“Whenever you walk between those lines, you’re no longer just a girl; you are a female-athlete, and you have to play that way. You have to play your game.”
Moskal started coaching baseball in 1988 but shifted to softball with the Lady Knights in the early 2000s.
At first, he couldn’t help but notice how pitcher-dominated the sport was. Pitchers might’ve worked out five days a week, yet hitters didn’t get enough work, Moskal thought.
So he started teaching his girls a seven-step approach to hitting, plucking advice from professionals at various hitting clinics across the country. They even rented out a hitting facility about the Citizens Bank in Canonsburg, calling it “The Castle.”
He coached and treated his players – this is important – as equals.
“I treat them as female-athletes. Not girls,” Moskal said. “When they’re outside the lines, they’re young ladies. When they’re between the lines, they’re female-athletes. Slide, get dirty, sweat. Play the game how it’s supposed to be played.”
That Canon-Mac does.
And often absurdly well, as evidenced by a second consecutive WPIAL Class AAAA title, a 24-1 record and a 12:30 p.m. date at Penn State’s Nittany Lion Softball Park with Neshaminy, the PIAA championship on the line.
But even with all the Big Macs’ success, Moeller prefers a less-is-more approach: warmups, though they might resemble more of what a baseball does, rarely deviate; cheers are reserved for when something good happens; and substitutions are not made freely.
Or, most of the time, at all.
“I changed the lineup one time this season, and we didn’t play well,” Moeller said after a PIAA quarterfinal win over North Allegheny. “This team doesn’t respond well to change, and I don’t either.”
Zeremenko said she notices when other teams make a bunch of moves – how could she not? – to try and rattle Canon-Mac. She and her teammates can only laugh.
No way any of that would happen on the Big Macs’ bench.
“Our approach is different, and our girls seem to respond to it,” Moskal said. “They believe in what we’re teaching them.”