As Canon-McMillan makes its second consecutive trip through the PIAA playoffs, with a WPIAL title already in tow, one thing is evident -- these players have been here before.
After winning their inaugural WPIAL softball championship last season and reaching the PIAA semifinals for the first time in program history, the Big Macs are taking a more relaxed approach to things this time around.
"Last year was the first time we did it, now it is a totally different feeling," coach Michelle Moeller said. "The crazy thing is, what the girls really want is a charter bus. To me it is odd to want to drive anywhere over an hour."
Canon-McMillan repeated as WPIAL champions this year without ever having to leave the area. They defeated Penn-Trafford, Hempfield Area and North Allegheny in the WPIAL playoffs all at California University.
On Monday in the PIAA first round they kept their season alive with a 2-1 win against Hempfield at North Allegheny High School. None of the trips were long enough to warrant a charter bus.
"We're having a lot of fun this year," senior pitcher Alayna Astuto said. "We're enjoying these moments with each other. This time around, we know what we are getting ourselves into, but none of us are breathing easy. We know once you lose, you are done."
Astuto is a big reason why the Big Macs are still playing. She fired a no-hitter in a 5-0 win against Hempfield in the WPIAL semifinals and 11 days later she worked herself out of a number of jams to defeat the Spartans again, 2-1, in the PIAA first round.
Canon-McMillan is 22-1 overall this season with its only loss coming to Hempfield in the third game of the season, a game in which Astuto did not pitch.
Canon-McMillan will need another big game from Astuto to reach the PIAA semifinals. After having to defeat Hempfield twice in 11 days, Canon-McMillan has a rematch with North Allegheny set for 2 p.m. today at Fairhaven Park in Kennedy, just seven days after the teams met in the WPIAL championship game.
"It is a shame how [the PIAA tournament bracket] is set up," Moeller said. "There are a lot of quality teams from the WPIAL and we knock each other out. It is a going to be a tough game against North Allegheny."
Any thoughts about a potential WPIAL title hangover being present in the PIAA first round were forgotten as Canon-McMillan took a 2-0 lead against Hempfield in the fourth inning on a two-run home run by junior third baseman Olivia Lorusso. Her blast drove in freshman shortstop Linda Rush.
"It was a much tighter game [than the WPIAL semifinal against Hempfield]," Moeller said. "This team is a lot of fun to watch play. It has been great."
Moeller has spent a lot of time with this group on and off the field. The night before the WPIAL championship game, Canon-McMillan had its prom and Moeller was a chaperone. All of her seniors were there as well as some of the underclassmen.
Last season the WPIAL championship experience was all new to the players. Moeller had previously competed in the WPIAL finals as a player. A 1988 Baldwin High School graduate, Moeller played in WPIAL softball and volleyball championship games. The PIAA postseason was something new to everyone.
"We didn't know what happens next or where you have to travel," Moeller said. "We are doing research on the fly and not knowing the team names or the districts. But it is still softball, you have to step on the field and play."
Canon-McMillan is one of the best offensive teams in the state. They have a number of players capable of putting the ball over the fence including junior catcher Giorgiana Zeremenko, one of the top talents in the area.
"We always knew they could win," Moeller said. "But we had never been there before last year. Now to have it happen back-to-back years, it is really fun to watch."