New Castle News

Neshannock

June 13, 2012

Athlete of the Week: Rayanna Furst of Neshannock

NEW CASTLE — It’s one of the most basic skills of the game, but Rayanna Furst had to learn it all over again.

From stepping forward and turning her hips to keeping her head on the ball, swinging away was a new concept to Furst.

Now a junior for the Neshannock High softball team, Furst had utilized what’s known as slap-hitting for as long as she could remember. The speedy lefty would swing and start running toward first base all in one motion, making just enough contact to put the ball in play, like a swinging bunt. With Furst’s quickness, teams struggled to field the ball cleanly and throw her out.

Yet, longtime Neshannock coach Tracy Kimmel saw something more. He saw a smooth-swinging athlete with the ability to drive the ball to all fields. So, the two decided to make a change.

“I knew she had a good swing,” Kimmel said. “And the other kids we had coming up, like (Madison) Shaffer and (Marissa) DeMatteo, I knew they were slap-hitters, too, and I just felt Ray was a little ahead of them swing-wise, so that’s why I moved her from leadoff to No. 3.

“She’s a junior and the other kids are just moving up (from junior high). They have good skills, too  — they both have good swings. Plus I can always have (Rayanna) slap if we need her to.”

Slowly but surely, Furst found her swing, and it’s paid major dividends for the Lady Lancers during their run to the state championship game.

Furst hit a game-winning, two-run double in the top of the eighth inning during last Tuesday’s 5-3 win over Philipsburg-Osceola in the first round of the PIAA Class AA playoffs. She followed that up with a game-tying RBI single in the quarterfinals. This one came with Neshannock’s season hanging in the balance as Fairview had two outs and a full count on Furst. The Lady Lancers went on to win that game in the next at-bat, 4-3.

The performance earned her Lawrence County Athlete of the Week honors, an award sponsored by Washington Centre Physical Therapy and selected by the New Castle News sports staff.

Furst’s heroics wouldn’t have happened if not her for ability to put the team first.

She was one of the team’s top players as a sophomore. She could bat from either side of the plate and often would swing away when she hit right-handed. And she was nearly impossible to get out as a slap-hitter from the left side because of her speed. Still, Furst accepted the change because she knew the impact it could have on the Lady Lancers. They were loaded with speed, but they needed some pop in the middle of the lineup.

So Furst moved down two spots in the order and was looked at to hit for power and drive runners in, when just a year earlier she was flailing at the ball and motoring to first base. That’s quite a change.

“I sorta knew how (to swing away) from swinging on the right side, but when I switched over to the left, it was still a whole new experience because it was so awkward at first,” she said. “I had to get used to it.

“I kept pulling my head off because it was weird rotating another way. I had to get my footwork down and get my hips turning. It was completely different because it was the opposite side.”

It was a season-long process, but she caught on, finishing the year batting .474 and leading the team in RBIs with 22. She was still able to show off her speed with 12 steals and 21 runs scored during the regular season.

Despite the success, Kimmel said he noticed her confidence starting to drop late in the WPIAL playoffs, so he placed her back at the leadoff spot in the state playoffs against Philipsburg-Osceola, the defending PIAA champion.

“I said, ‘Ray, I can see it in your eye, I don’t think you’re comfortable in that three spot,’ ” Kimmel recalled. “So we decided to make the switch. She’s good at both. She could do either one. I just made that change just to make a change. It really has nothing to do with her abilities. I just think she’s more comfortable in that role.”

Late in the game against Philipsburg-Osceola, with runners on second and third and the contest tied 3-3, Kimmel had another conversation with Furst, and his tune changed this time around.

“I remember talking to her and I said, ‘You’re one of the best hitters on the team, and right now, I don’t need anymore baserunners. I need someone to drive the ball,’ ” Kimmel said. “She looked me in the eyes and said, ‘Yeah, coach.’ ”

Furst then launched a ball to right-center field and both runners scored as it bounced off the fence. Needless to say, her confidence was back, and she proved it in the next game when again she laced a clutch single to keep the Lady Lancers’ season alive.

Furst, who’s also a good center-fielder — not to mention the sister of Neshannock’s star pitcher, senior Amanda Furst — said she’s comfortable with any type of swing at this point. Whatever the 23-1 Lady Lancers need, she’s ready to deliver.

“The first couple of games, it was awkward, but once I started getting some hits, I got more confidence in it,” she said. “It was a gradual process, but I’m comfortable with either (slap-hitting or swinging away). I just wanted it to be good for the team.”

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