It was to be a season that held only moderate expectations for the Madison High School girls softball team. Or so Coach Pat Dean thought.

With only three players returning, little could be realistically expected.

But halfway through their schedule, the Warhawks were 9-0. And Madison has a few stars responsible for the fine start.

Kristyn Abel is the ingenue. She's the pitcher who's only a sophomore, but has all nine victories. On top of that, she has 92 strikeouts and an earned run average of 0.37.

That's not startling, says Dean. "In softball, you just don't have the wear and tear on the arm."

Fortunately for Madison, Abel hasn't had to pitch every inning. She's received support from a group of relief pitchers that have kept her fresh enough to start every game.

Abel has also gotten support from Warhawks hitters, the kind of support that dizzies opposing pitchers and makes it possible for Abel, who is hitting .455, to get plenty of rest.

Cathy Schrage, a senior center fielder, and Donna Weller, a junior shortstop, are among the Warhawks' leading hitters. Weller is hitting .467. Schrage and sophomore second baseman Cheryl Willson are each hitting .400. Cindy Ritter, a freshman right fielder, is hitting .444.

The Warhawks also play sound defense, a pleasant surprise considering the starting lineup includes five sophomores and one freshman.

"It was unexpected," Dean said. "I thought the kids would make more errors -- not the physical errors, but mental errors -- throwing to the wrong base and making unnecessary throws."

Dean is a seasoned coach. She has won two state titles (1979 and 1984) in her 11 years at Madison. Through last season the Warhawks had won four consecutive Great Falls District titles, equaling a previous string of titles Dean had put together earlier in her career at Madison.

This season has surprised her as much as anyone. "It was supposed to be a rebuilding year," she said. "At least it looked that way on paper."

If that was the case, the renovations were made quickly. With support beams such as co-captains Schrage and Weller already in place, the finishing came easy.

Where the last touches came from is no secret. "I knew we had a real good group on the junior varsity last year," Dean said. "And there's a good community program behind that."

Refurbished Madison didn't have to wait long to be tested. It won three games, taking first place in the West Springfield tournament.

Two of its tournament victories came against West Springfield and Robinson, teams that started the season with high expectations and still are among the region's best.

Against Robinson, Madison trailed, 1-0, with two out in the bottom of the seventh, but the Warhawks rallied to tie and win the game.

Victory was sweet. The Rams had eliminated Madison in the regionals last year when Dean thought her team -- a club with great expectations -- had done as much to eliminate itself as any opponent had done.

This year, Dean suspected her inexperienced players might meet with the same kind of fate. But that has not been the case.

The Warhawks followed their success in the West Springfield tournament with district victories over Herndon, South Lakes and Marshall. Last Friday they beat Washington-Lee, 21-0, improving their district record to 4-0.

With each win, expectations become greater and greater.

"Right now we're trying to keep our goals realistic," Dean said. "We want to win the district and get to the regionals, and after that, just try to keep putting off the last game."