The first clue that it might be a special season did not come before the first pitch or the first workout. It came the previous season in, of all things, a loss in the PIAA Class AAAA semifinals against Bishop Shanahan.
A young and developing Canon-McMillan softball team left the field that day disappointed, but head coach Michele Moeller knew that if everything fell right the following season, it could be very special.
“I was trying not to look ahead, but I was thinking about what a lineup we would have,” said Moeller, who is not given to bravado.
Moeller was right. The Big Macs stayed relatively healthy, pounded the ball on offense and got a strong performance by pitcher Alayna Astuto, especially in the playoffs, to make a remarkable run to the program’s first state softball championship. Linda Rush’s two-run home run in the top of the 12th inning, and Astuto’s 18 strikeouts, allowed the Big Macs to come away with a dramatic 4-3 victory over Neshaminy to cap a magical season.
It was only the third state softball championship won by a school in the Washington-Greene area, and the first in a classification above Single-A.
That accomplishment has earned Canon-McMillan this year’s Observer-Reporter Headliner award.
The team will be honored at the Tri-County Athletic Directors Coach of the Year Banquet, 5 p.m. Sunday, April 27 at the DoubleTree by Hilton in the Meadow Lands.
Tickets for the banquet are $35 each and are on sale at Washington High School, 201 Allison Avenue, Washington, Pa., 15301. Reservations can be made by calling athletic director Joe Nicolella at 724-223-5085, ext. 2091.
All proceeds from the banquet benefit Special Olympics.
“I was at last year’s Coach of the Year Banquet, and I remember watching the wrestling team accept their (Headliner) trophy,” Moeller said. “I told the girls that this can be you next year.”
Moeller’s thoughts proved prophetic.
Canon-McMillan went undefeated in 14 Section 4-AAAA games and lost only once, 17-6 to Hempfield early in the season, to finish at 25-1. The Big Macs rode Astuto’s powerful right arm to seven consecutive postseason wins, three by shutout and two other by allowing just one run, and avenged the Hempfield loss by beating the Spartans twice in the postseason. One came in the WPIAL semifinals, a 5-0 perfect game by Astuto that propelled the Big Macs to the finals.
A 5-2 victory over North Allegheny produced a WPIAL championship.
“Alayna could really move the ball,” said Moeller. “She was fun to watch.”
Throughout the season, Moeller desperately tried to build confidence without it spilling over into cockiness.
“I remember what (Pirates manager) Clint Hurdle said one time and I loved it,” she said. “He said, ‘There are two types of players, those who are humble and those who are about to be.’”
Moeller said the input from her coaching staff – assistant coaches Steve Moskal and Tracey Michalak – was invaluable.
“Tracey has been with me since I got here,” she said. “Some people were telling me it might not be good to bring Steve in as coach, but I am so glad we brought him in. There is so much I learned from him. I’m listed as the head coach, but I really feel we did this together. We’ve been together for so long that we finish each other’s sentences.”
Another key piece to the puzzle was the development of Linda Rush, who was being counted on to replace Veronica Rothka at shortstop after the latter suffered an ACL tear in her left knee. The early season loss to Hempfield was alarming but didn’t cause upheaval. Well, at least not on the field.
“After that loss, I went to my niece’s birthday party,” Moeller said. “Everyone had something to say about it. But we had a long-range plan.”
Abby McCartney tortured opposing pitching with a .519 batting average, Olivia Lorusso provided power with a team-high seven home runs and 35 RBI, Giorgiana Zeremenko hit .545 in the postseason, and Rush hit .467, batting in the No. 3 spot, with 21 RBI and a team-high 36 runs. She had 90 at-bats and only struck out twice. And, of course, there was that dramatic home run in the finals.
“Going into the season, we set goals, and I knew we could achieve them,” Moeller said. “I felt like we could finally compete. And we did.
“It was a great season.”