Heading into last week's WPIAL championship game, Canon-McMillan's softball trophy case sat empty.
The Big Macs had never won a WPIAL title. They had never even played in the championship game before.
The Big Macs finally got some decoration for that trophy case with a 4-1 victory against Hempfield Area for the WPIAL title. Now, they're looking to add some PIAA hardware to their collection.
Canon-McMillan will face Central Mountain at 1 p.m. today at St. Francis University in Loretto in the state quarterfinals. It's the farthest the school has ever advanced in the PIAA tournament.
"Setting out early in the season, we knew they were capable of it," Big Macs coach Michelle Moeller said after the WPIAL championship. "Not having been there, you want to see what they can do when they believe in each other. All week, we've just been preaching, 'Stay calm, enjoy this battle, enjoy the day.'"
Just as they did in the regular season, the Big Macs have been getting the job done with timely pitching and one or two big hits. They've hit 20 home runs this season, including seven in their run to the WPIAL title.
In the championship game, sophomore third baseman Olivia Lorusso provided the big blast. She knocked an 0-2 changeup from Hempfield pitcher Karilynn Null over the left field fence for a three-run home run that would prove to be the margin of victory.
"I think our attitude started picking up in a good way. We realized it was starting to get closer to the end and we just needed to pick up our pace a little bit," Lorusso said. "We're good at doing that. When the time comes, we can get it done."
Monday, it was freshman right fielder Abby McCartney who went long. Her two-run homer in the sixth inning helped Canon-McMillan advance past District 10 champion McDowell, 4-1, in the first round of the PIAA tournament.
Moeller said McCartney and Lorusso, as well as sophomore catcher Giorgiana Zerremenko, have been the heart of the Big Macs lineup all season.
"Those three back-to-back really pose problems to pitchers in the sense that, when you pitch around one or you walk one, when you do that, you still have to face them," Moeller said. "They have confidence because they've been there before, and they've made those big hits."
Of course, the Big Macs wouldn't have gotten this far on offense alone. Junior pitcher Alayna Astuto went 10-4 during the regular season, and has turned up her intensity for the playoffs. She allowed just three hits in the WPIAL championship game.
Against McDowell, Astuto hurled a one-hitter, striking out 13.
The WPIAL title game was the second time Astuto had beaten perennial power Hempfield this season. She led the Big Macs to a 1-0 win in the fourth game of the season.
"Some people at school would say, 'Well, you beat Hempfield early on, doesn't that give you a good feeling?' It felt good, but that was like the fourth or fifth game of the season," Moeller said. "They're hitting better, we're hitting better. Neither team is like they were week one or week two."
Astuto struck out just one in the rematch for the title, but she forced the Spartans batters into popups and weak grounders.
"I told Alayna, 'Don't expect to strike a lot of people out. They're going to put balls in play.' We worked a lot on defense because we knew they were going to hit the ball," Moeller said.
"You don't have to strike out all the batters anymore, as long as you can play some defense."
The state playoff run seems even incredible considering where Canon-McMillan softball was just a few years ago. From 2008 to 2010, the Big Macs went a combined 7-44 and finished in last place every season.
With such a young roster -- only two players are seniors -- it will likely be a long time before the Big Macs come anywhere close to the bottom of the standings again.
Until then, they can just keep filling up that trophy case.
Sam Werner: email@example.com or on Twitter @SWernerPG First Published June 7, 2012 12:00 AM