For most teams in most seasons, the purpose of out-of-state tournaments is to escape the Western Pennsylvania winter and play preseason games to prepare for the section schedule.
Canon-McMillan is not most teams and this is not most seasons.
The defending WPIAL and PIAA Class AAAA champions have the firepower back to make another run at WPIAL and PIAA gold. Coach Michele Moeller decided to schedule an out-of-state tournament in South Carolina in the middle of the season. The thinking was that the trip would better translate to postseason momentum.
"We usually go [south] to prepare for the section," Moeller said. "The thinking this year is to get down there in the middle of the season and be in position for playoffs and prepare for that.
"We still think we have a chance to compete in that [South Carolina] tournament. In earlier years maybe we didn't have the same talent, the last few years we have that type of team and we are going to give it a shot."
The Big Macs are teeming with talent, returning three all-section players in junior centerfielder Abby McCartney, senior third baseman Olivia Lorusso and sophomore shortstop Linda Rush.
McCartney moves back to her natural position of center field after filling in at catcher for the injured Giorgiana Zeremenko last season. Zeremenko, a senior catcher, returns to the lineup this season. She is one of the best talents and power hitters in the state.
Zeremenko missed a majority of last season with a shoulder injury. Her return to the lineup gives Canon-McMillan the offensive firepower few teams can match.
"Gia is good right now, she seems to be strong," Moeller said. "She is strengthening her shoulder and taking all the reps back there at catcher."
That offense may have to carry the team early on as Canon-McMillan must replace pitcher Alayna Astuto. A three-year starter, Astuto helped carry the team to the WPIAL and state titles last season, winning all seven of her postseason starts and allowing seven runs in seven games.
"Obviously, [replacing Astuto] is going to be a challenge," Moeller said. "The good thing is, I still think we have the hitters and we have the defense to back up the pitcher and to take some of the pressure off the pitcher. I know with Alayna last year, we were always prepared for her not to strike people out because she was never really a strikeout pitcher early. We were prepared to play defense."
Junior Tara Fowler will be called upon to take over in the pitching circle with senior Ally Bellaire also capable of pitching. Fowler was the team's starting left fielder last season and Bellaire started at second base where she will continue to play when she is not pitching.
"Tara worked next to Alayna the last two years, they worked on some similar pitches," Moeller said. "She has good movement and they have some similarities in their pitching. We are going to have to allow our pitchers coming in to grow. We are going to have to allow the new pitchers to develop."
The Big Macs must also replace outfielder Yaszmin Kotar, an all-section choice last season.
"[Being the defending WPIAL and state champion] is exciting and a nice postilion to be in," Moeller said. "But it is a little bittersweet to have a lot of girls graduate. I still think some of our girls are going to be missing some of the girls who left. That will be our challenge, to fill that void."
Moeller speaks highly of freshman Brittney Crawford, who could have a major impact on the Big Macs offense. She can play multiple positions and currently is penciled in at first base.