Layered approach defines Canon-Mac’s trip to the top

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On the surface, the Canon-McMillan softball team’s ascent to one of the state’s elite programs might appear to be ahead of schedule.


The Big Macs won their first WPIAL title last season, another this year and will play in today’s PIAA Class AAAA championship game for the first time in program history with a roster that’s heavy on young talent.


Yet head coach Michele Moeller could not disagree more.


It might appear as though Canon-McMillan arrived here a year or two early, but the truth of the matter is this day has been years in the making, the groundwork laid by several of the team’s seniors.


“For us, it doesn’t feel like it was quick,” Moeller said. “In our eyes, it’s been eight years.”


That’s because Moeller and assistant coach Steve Moskal have been working with the bulk of this senior class since they were 8, 9 and 10 years old.


First baseman Maddie Engel, shortstop Veronica Rothka, catcher Shelby Adams, center fielder Yaszmin Kotar and pitchers Alayna Astuto and Kayla Kiger have all come through the program, trying their best to push it forward and picking up a few key pieces each year.


It’s hard to believe now, but Canon-McMillan finished 3-14 when these seniors were freshmen.


The next year, as third baseman Olivia Lorusso, catcher Giorgiana Zeremenko and second baseman Ally Bellaire came aboard, the Big Macs jumped to 10-7 and reached the WPIAL Class AAAA quarterfinals.


Toss in right fielder Abby McCartney and left fielder Tara Fowler the following spring, and the Big Macs moved to the front of the line with their first WPIAL Class AAAA title and a trip to the PIAA semifinals.


“Most of us have been playing together since we were 10 years old,” Zeremenko said, talking about a Canonsburg Lady Knights group that included herself, Rothka, Kotar, Engel, Kiger, Astuto and McCartney. “Just that chemistry and how we’re all able to bond and pick each other up, how we work well together, has really helped.”


Lorusso said that defending the 2012 championship has been more difficult, if for no other reason than because Canon-Mac has been considered the team to beat for much of the season.


Yet no one has.


“We’ve all been saying, our whole lives, we want to win WPIALs. That’s such a big deal,” Lorusso said. “States was a dream to be in. I feel that this year was our main year. Last year, we had a very good team, don’t get me wrong. But we weren’t exactly expecting to go as far as we did. So that was a blessing.


“This year, though, was our chosen year. Everyone who knew us knew that this year was going to be a big year. We expected just as much out of ourselves as everyone else did.”


The infrastructure that Canon-McMillan has built was strong enough to weather a few key injuries at the beginning of the season, as Rothka was lost for the year with a torn ACL and Zeremenko missed a significant chunk of the regular season with an impingement to her rotator cuff.


That allowed Linda and Kirsten Rush, a pair of talented freshman, to step into the lineup at shortstop and as the team’s designated player, respectively. McCartney shifted behind the plate.


“This year not having Veronica and ‘G’ early on, to have Kirsten and Linda Rush step in and be the ones to fill those shoes, it’s a wonderful thing,” Moeller said. “We tend to keep seeing some of those kids coming in.”


And the scary part: There’s more on the way.


“We’re certainly in a better position than we were several years ago,” Moeller said.


That much is true, regardless of how long it took to get there.


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