It was a long eight-year road from the fields of the U-10 Canonsburg Knights youth softball team to the PIAA Class AAAA championship.
So when Canon-McMillan finally arrived Friday at Nittany Lion Softball Park at Penn State University to play for its first state title, coach Michele Moeller wanted to remind her team they were still on a softball field -- no less, no more.
In a Hoosiers-esque stadium walk through on the night before the PIAA final, Moeller had one of her players run to a base.
She would yell out and ask them how far it was from home plate.
"Sixty feet," her junior catcher Giorgiana Zeremenko would yell back.
They repeated the same for the other bases and the pitching rubber.
"Even though it is a bigger venue, it is still the same field," Moeller reminded them. "It is still the same game you have to play."
And the Big Macs played their game.
They outlasted District 1 Neshaminy, 4-3, in a 12-inning thriller to give the program its first PIAA softball championship.
It was only the third PIAA Class AAAA title from a WPIAL team since Class AAAA formed in 2005 with Shaler (2006) and Mt. Lebanon (2010) also winning. The game also tied for the second-longest title game with the 1989 PIAA Class AAA final between Williamsport and Baldwin (a 2001 Class AA championship between Fleetwood and Riverside went 14 innings.)
Moeller just missed playing in that 14-inning 1989 final, she graduated from Baldwin in 1988. She did play in a PIAA volleyball championship game in which her team finished runner-up.
"I played in a state final in volleyball when I was 16 or 17, we took second, I don't remember that feeling," Moeller said. "But after this game, I don't think I'll ever forget the feeling."
In the PIAA final, senior pitcher Alayna Astuto was phenomenal, pitching nine innings of no-hit softball and going the complete game to get the win. Things got interesting in the 10th when under International Tiebreaker rules each team started each inning with a runner on second base and no outs. Canon-McMillan and Neshaminy each scored a run in the 10th and 11th.
The one dimension that was different at Nittany Lion Park was the home run walls. They were deep and tall, the tallest the Big Macs had seen all year.
That hardly mattered to Canon-McMillan freshman Linda Rush. She belted a two-run home run in the top of the 12th and Astuto and the Big Macs held on in the bottom of the 12th to win 4-3.
"It was breathtaking," Astuto said. "It was definitely hard to keep going, but you just have to keep pushing through. This was definitely the best way I could end my senior year, I couldn't have asked for a better season."
Astuto finished the PIAA final with 18 strikeouts.
"We just kept matching score for score," Moeller recalled. "It was all around a great game. We just kept saying, it does not get any better than this. Now knowing what we went through, it makes it that much more special."
Zeremenko added, "It is just an awesome feeling knowing we were the first ones to do it.
Many of these seniors started playing together when they were 9 years old for the Canonsburg Lady Knights under coach Steve Moskal, who is an assistant on the varsity high school staff.
As freshmen, the current class of seniors struggled through growing pains and injuries in a 3-14 season. By the time they were sophomores they were in the playoffs and by their junior years they were winning the first WPIAL softball title in school history.
"It may look like a short time, but it has never felt like a short time for me and the coaches," Moeller said. "Ever since seeing them as 9-year-olds, I had been waiting for them to be freshmen. I knew we had talent. People think it was a short period of time, for us it seems like an eight-year process."
Seniors Maddie Engel, Yaszmin Kotar, Astuto and Veronica Rothka started four years ago as freshmen. Rothka missed this season with an injury but the four had been together since U-10 travel ball. They were soon joined by current juniors such as Zeremenko, third baseman Olivia Lorusso and second baseman Ally Bellaire and then current sophomores outfielder Abby McCartney and infielder Tara Fowler joined the team.
"We kept those seniors together," Moeller said. "And kept filtering in other pieces of the puzzle."
The completed puzzle looks golden.hsbaseball