It was not a position the Greensburg Salem softball team was supposed to be in, but it nonetheless found itself there.
After tearing through their competition for much of the season, including a stretch from April 18 to May 6 in which they outscored opponents by a combined 66-0 margin, the Golden Lions quickly and unexpectedly ran into what some outside the program could have viewed as serious problems.
There was a lopsided loss to an 8-8 Southmoreland team that missed out on the WPIAL playoffs, but the team rested several top players for a game it did not see as meaningful.
But it was what happened next that nearly derailed the team's promising season.
The top seed in Class AAA, Greensburg Salem needed a grand slam in the final inning to get past Highlands, a No. 16 seed that finished 8-6 in the regular season.
While the setbacks and close calls halted what had been a dominant run, it was a pair of contests that helped refocus perhaps the best team in the state in its class.
Having taken some small lumps, the Golden Lions are now prepared for their sport's ultimate goal -- a state championship.
Since that two-game stretch, Greensburg Salem has regained the strong form it displayed for much of the season, winning its past four games, capturing the WPIAL championship and, most recently, a spot in the PIAA quarterfinals.
"We're pretty pleased with how the season has gone," Greensburg Salem coach Jody Morgan said. "We're the best team that I've seen all year and we're right where we need to be at this point in the season."
If there was one true pitfall to the team's brief struggles, it was that they seemingly obscured what has shaped up to be a potentially historic season.
After finishing 17-4 last season and winning a game in the PIAA playoffs, Greensburg Salem built on that success with a 17-2 regular-season record it obtained by outscoring opponents by an average of 7.58 runs per game.
Following the games against Southmoreland and Highlands, the Golden Lions shut out Blackhawk and held off West Allegheny to make the WPIAL championship.
It was there that the team turned in perhaps its best performance of the season, scoring an 8-0 rout against an Ambridge squad that had lost by no more than four runs this season. The WPIAL championship was the first in the program's history.
In the win, Greensburg Salem was led by pitcher Jayne Oberdorf, who threw a complete game and had little trouble with the Ambridge lineup.
Oberdorf's importance to the team, however, extends far beyond that one win; in fact, it has been perhaps the central reason for the team's overwhelming success.
A senior who will play at Marist College next season, Oberdorf is 21-0 after notching 181 strikeouts in the regular season. In the Golden Lions' most recent victory, a 2-0 win against St. Mary's in the first round of the PIAA playoffs, she gave up just three hits while striking out 15 batters.
At a point in the season where a dominant pitcher is the most precious luxury a team can have, Greensburg Salem will only go as far as Oberdorf can take it.
"She's the real deal," Morgan said. "She's a pitcher who's gotten a Division I scholarship and that's what it takes to win."
Throughout the season, Oberdorf has also gotten significant help from a familiar face -- her sister, Claire, who is a standout sophomore shortstop.
With the Oberdorf sisters and a collection of other talented players who have helped get the team to 22-2 this season, the Golden Lions move on to the state quarterfinals, matching the furthest point they have reached in the past decade.
There, they will play a Fort LeBoeuf team that defeated West Allegheny, 2-0, in the first round. The game will begin at 4 p.m. today at Slippery Rock.
As the team moves forward, questions have surrounded the future of Morgan, who will retire as a teacher this year. Morgan said she will be back with the team, noting that she would like to coach for "another year or two."
But even for such a mainstay at the school, not even Morgan has seen a team on par with the one she coaches now.
"They don't know how to lose and they don't want to lose," she said. "That's a good thing. They're all just such high-caliber kids. I've never been around a better group of kids in 35 years."hsbaseball