NEW CASTLE —
Being the best of the best is easier said than done.
It requires the combination of the right attitude, talent, drive and a little bit of luck along the way.
When it comes to all those criteria, Rayanna Furst and Madison Shaffer have all of their bases covered.
There wasn’t a more dominant duo in high school softball this spring. Whether it was Furst’s hitting or Shaffer’s pitching, the Neshannock High pair deserved that distinguished label— the best of the best.
The Lady Lancers, last year’s PIAA Class AA champions, needed every bit of what Furst and Shaffer had to offer in order to make it back to the state title game at Penn State University — and the two delivered.
Although the team fell short of a second consecutive state crown, this time in a 13-0 defeat to Williams Valley, Furst and Shaffer answered the call and delivered for their squad all season long.
For that reason, the two have earned Lawrence County’s softball co-MVP honors, as voted on by the New Castle News sports department.
SETTING THE TONE
Furst had no troubles getting to first this season, owning the best softball batting average in the county (.568), which included 39 trips to the base on singles. Neshannock’s leadoff hitter, she also scored a county-best 40 runs, feeding her teammates run-scoring opportunities with frequent appearances on base.
The senior used her combination of speed and bunting ability to get most of those hits. Despite the opposition knowing what was coming, they still couldn’t beat her to the base.
“She’s naturally one of our faster players here,” Lady Lancers coach Tracy Kimmel said. “She doesn’t look like she’s running that fast at times, but she’s getting around the bases.”
Furst further developed her speed this past offseason with a combination of workouts and jump stretches to build up her leg strength. However, her origins as a speedster began at an earlier age — with a classic game of cat and mouse.
“I know in the backyard playing with my dad and stuff, he used to always chase me around my house,” Furst said. “There’s a circle around my house. Inside there is one wall, then a circle,” Furst laughed. “He said I used to run a complete circle, like the bases almost is what he called it, and he chased after me when I was little. He probably helped me with my speed around my house.”
While her bunting and slap-hitting style were always above average, Furst also displayed unrealized power when she was asked to swing away. She even managed to hit her first home run over the fence in the WPIAL Class A semifinals against Frazier, a 9-1 victory.
Neshannock advanced to win the WPIAL title after that game, a 10-4 decision over Carmichaels. The district crown was a first in program history.
“In the offseason, I had to improve more on my swing instead of my bunt and slap,” Furst said. “My bunt-slapping started when I was really young, like sixth grade, so I was more comfortable with that instead of swinging away. In the cages during the winter, I just focused more on swinging away left-handed and improved that.”
Acknowledging her greatest improvement this season was swinging the bat, she added, “It was not a shock to me, but it was so new to me the last couple of years. Especially that one home run, I didn’t think about ever hitting one during the season; I didn’t get my hopes up. Then I did that, and I was like, all right, maybe coach Kimmel was right. I should have a little more confidence in my swing.”
Furst’s development at the plate jumped her .485 average last year nearly .100 points this past season. She collected 13 additional hits, leading the county with 46, and finished with a team-high two home runs, one of which was inside the park. Furst also tied for fifth in the county with 24 RBIs.
Though she may have developed a more dangerous repertoire with added power potential, Furst still was best suited as a prototypical leadoff hitter for Kimmel’s Lady Lancers.
“Last year, I tried to make a number three hitter out of her, but I found out in time that wasn’t Ray,” he said. “She’s geared to more getting on base rather than a run producer. She can do a lot of things with the bat and the good speed. She’s really the ideal leadoff hitter. She can hitter for power, too. When she wants to, she can ride the ball.”