The juniors and seniors on the Canon-McMillan High School softball team have raised the bar for the program and, to some extent, the bar for all of WPIAL Class AAAA softball as well.
The two-time defending WPIAL champions were seeking an unprecedented third consecutive title, something no Quad-A team has ever done.
Canon-McMillan, the No. 1 seed in the Class AAAA field, received a bye into the quarterfinals. The Big Macs defeated North Allegheny, 3-1, in a quarterfinal game on Monday. They were scheduled to play Greater Latrobe Wednesday in the semifinals.
Canon-McMillan has shown over the past three years that it is not just a team that gets hot at the right time, it can dominate throughout the season. In 2012, the Big Macs won 18 games, captured a Section 4-AAAA title, won a WPIAL title and reached the PIAA semifinals.
In 2013 they lost only one game, finishing 25-1 with another section crown to go with WPIAL and PIAA championships as well.
This season, Canon-McMillan (16-3, 12-2 before Wednesday) made it three consecutive section titles.
"This [regular season] is definitely different," coach Michele Moeller said. "We are hitting better than we were last year, which we knew we were going to need to do. We gave up a few more runs than we did in the past but at times we settled down and have not given up those runs. It has definitely been a different path in that sense."
With the graduation of pitcher Alayna Astuto from last year's team along with increased offensive prowess within the section, the Big Macs knew they were going to need to improve on an offense that was already one of the best in the WPIAL, averaging 10 runs per game last season.
The players, like so many times before, answered the call. The Big Macs offense averaged more than 11 runs per game this season.
"They are doing it all," Moeller said. "The more they play, the older they get, the more confident they get."
The already lethal offense received a big boost with the emergence of senior second baseman Ally Bellaire and the arrival of freshman Brittany Crawford.
Crawford has played fall ball with the varsity team since she was 11.
"We knew what we were getting," Moeller said. "She definitely is that varsity-type player. With Brittany and the way Ally is hitting this year, it was just two more added bats for us."
Bellaire is having her best offensive season yet, batting better than .400 with four home runs.
"[Having Bellaire in the lineup] was a great boost for us," Moeller said.
Bellaire is one of three four-year starters on the team along with third baseman Olivia Lorusso and catcher Giorgiana Zeremenko. Junior center fielder Abby McCartney is a three-year starter.
"I can honestly say I have never had a group that racked up as many accolades," Moeller said of her junior and senior class. "There are still things out there to achieve.
"I just talked to my juniors and seniors [last Wednesday] and asked them how hungry they still were. No Quad-A team has ever 'three-peated.' We just have to go out and play our game."
Junior Taylor Fowler has stepped in at pitcher and filled in the considerable void left by Astuto's graduation. Fowler was 12-3 this season.
"She got stronger over the last two weeks," Moeller said. "I felt like she took another step when we blanked Peters, 12-0 [in the regular-season finale]. Her pitches were really on and her command was there."
With Fowler racking up just 40 strikeouts during the regular season, plenty of balls were put into play and the Big Macs defense responded behind her.
"That has been another challenge -- our defense is averaging about two errors a game, but they are seeing a lot more balls," Moeller said.
"Have we let some get away with errors? Yeah. Have they stepped up and made big plays for her? Absolutely."