The Warren Dragons softball team has appeared in three straight District 10 Class AAA title games.
In order to advance to a fourth, the Lady Dragons will have to first deal with the Hickory Hornets in the D-10 Class AAA Semifinals at 5 p.m. Thursday at Meadville's Allegheny College.
For Warren, nothing short of a District 10 title will suffice for a team that slugged and pitched its way to a 17-1 mark in the regular season. It's only loss was a mid-season defeat to Fort LeBoeuf - the team it shared the Region 6 title with and will likely see should it advance to Monday's D-10 title game at Penn State Behrend.
"I can tell you that, at the beginning of the season, we write down both individual and team goals," said Warren coach Mark Bupp. "To a person, every member of our team listed one goal as getting back to the D-10 title game and winning it. The first goal was winning a region title and they were able to do that. The next step is playing well Thursday and getting back to the D-10 title game."
The Dragons enter Thursday's game on a six-game winning streak, thanks in large part to the pitching of Alexa Bupp and the ability of the team to go deep. Bupp earned 16 victories this season, including 11 shutouts.
Warren is never out of a ball game and doesn't necessarily have to play small ball to score. Several members of the team have the ability to go deep, and did so often this year.
Sophomore second baseman Kaitlin Ishman hit the ball out of the park nine times this season to lead the team. The leadoff batter is second on the club with 24 RBI. Bupp swings a mean bat herself, hitting seven homers with a team-best 25 RBI. They are first and second in District 10 in HR and RBI, respectively.
Jaimie Eaton, Kristin Hultquist and Rachel Hasselman also hit homers this year. All told, the Dragons blasted 21 home runs. Last year's campaign - a season that ended with a 2-0 loss to Fort LeBoeuf in the D-10 Class AAA title game - ended with just five homers.
Bupp attributes the offensive explosion to a number of factors, including specialized instruction and maturity of players.
"I think it's just a product of the girls having another year in our system," said Bupp, whose Dragons can put together a rally with no outs or two outs. "We've been able to bring in (Olympian) Crystl Bustos to give the girls some specialized instruction and many of our girls have matured as players over the past year. I like to think of this power surge as part of our natural process of growing as a team."
Sophomore starting pitcher Alexa Bupp is 16-1 with 146 K's in 101 innings pitched this season and a 0.55 ERA.
Hickory is the Region 5 champion for a second straight season, riding the arm of 2011's Region 5 pitcher of the year Emily Chess. Chess helped the team to a 12-5 mark during the 2012 regular season and a 9-1 mark in region play to win the title by two games.
In addition to Chess, head coach Tony Rock's team also returns 2011 all-District 10 second baseman Lauren Ferreri and 2011 Region 5 second-team selections Alexis McBride (shortstop), Madison Collier (outfield) and Courtney Maniscalio (designated player).
Last season, Hickory's run at a D-10 title ended in the semifinals with a loss to eventual champion Fort LeBoeuf.
"There are many similarities between their team and ours," said Bupp. "They've got solid pitching, some power and speed in the lineup, and they've shown the ability to come back when down. They are a returning region champion and they have a solid program. We're expecting a great game."