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.”
Another added benefit of Furst’s speed is the distance she’s able to cover when she patrols center field. Her athleticism and running ability were tested in the PIAA Class A semifinals in a 4-1 victory against Southern Huntingdon. She made an impressive diving catch in the outfield against the Lady Rockets’ first batter of the game, catcher McKenna Garlock. Furst later snagged a potential game-tying home run from Garlock with a catch at the wall in the sixth. The score was 2-1 at the time.
“It’s been lights out,” Kimmel said of Furst’s defensive work. “She can go get them, as to a couple of catches she made in the semifinal game can attest. She really held us in that game. She has a nice, accurate throwing arm. Teams know that, and they’re reluctant to take that extra base on you. That’s all part of the defense, too.”
Robert Morris University saw so much potential in Furst that it offered her a chance to play for its softball program. It was a proposition that was too good to refuse for Furst, who became the first Neshannock softball player to go Division I in the process.
It was an opportunity she may have passed up at the end of last season, but Furst learned a few things to reconsider this year.
“I learned to always have fun doing this sport,” she said. “For the next four years, I’m going to be doing it. I wouldn’t be doing it if I didn’t have fun. This team taught me to always have fun, work hard and try your best at it.”
On a Neshannock team that returned eight starters from last season, including five of last year’s all stars, a big question mark was left at pitcher. Amanda Furst, Rayanna’s sister and last year’s softball co-MVP, graduated, leaving the pitching circle in need of its first new starter in four seasons.
Shaffer, a sophomore, was more than capable of filling the role and was eager to make the most at her new position.
“Just probably the mental part, I’d say,” Shaffer said, describing the difference between her position last year, third base, and pitching. “You just have to be prepared for each game more than usual. That’s a big adjustment.”
New might be a loose term for Shaffer when it comes to pitching, as prior experience in travel leagues laid a groundwork for success. Already an all-star as a third baseman last year with a .398 average and 15 stolen bases, she has become an even better pitcher.
“She’s always been a pitcher,” added Kimmel. “It’s just last year we had Amanda here, but she’s a very good ballplayer, period. I know there were schools looking at her last year that were looking at her as a position player. They didn’t even know she pitched. I saw her pitch and I used her a few times in some of the games. She has a pretty good regimen that’s pretty much all-year round. She’s just going to keep getting better and better.”
A ceiling is hard to find on the young hurler, who made strides in the offseason to prepare for the 25-game haul of the upcoming season.
“I would say probably my accuracy made a lot of improvement, especially coming in to the high school level,” Shaffer said. “I knew that was a big focus.
“Wrist snaps are really important. I do an hour of wrist snaps every day,” she said about her regimen earlier in the season. “My basement is all set up for it, so I go down there and we have a net and a couple of buckets of balls, and I’ll just pitch into that.”
TAKEN BY STORM
Shaffer quickly made herself known this year, dazzling from the pitching circle by accumulating a 21-3 overall record with a minuscule 0.62 ERA. She added a .471 batting average (11th in the county), six doubles and was county runner-up with 32 RBIs.
Those daunting numbers don’t come as too much of a surprise to Kimmel, who got a brief glance last year of what his star ace was capable of.
“We thought she’d be good. I knew she had a chance to dominate at times, which she did,” he said. “She’s a little faster than a lot of the other kids. I think it was a learning experience for her and it was a good learning experience right until the end of the year. I think she’s going to be really good these next couple of years. She’s going to be hard to handle.”
What may be the most impressive thing from Shaffer’s season is that she threw three no-hitters and a perfect game in games ended early by the mercy rule. She also had two stretches in which she pitched five-straight shutouts.
“Coming into our team after having won state last year and hoping to be successful with our team this year,” Shaffer said was her greatest challenge.
Using an arsenal that includes a challenging curveball and a speedy fastball, Shaffer was able to strike out 199 batters through 116 innings this year.
“I think it was pretty much from her speed,” Kimmel said. “That’s basically it right now. Her size, she has nice size for a pitcher. She can maybe look a little bit intimidating out there. I like her approach because the ball can just seem to explode on you. With the added speed, it’s going to be tough to hit.”
With two more years left and room to grow, Shaffer looks primed to get even better from her second season.
“She’s probably going to be a Division I pitcher if she stays healthy,” Kimmel said. “The way she works at it, she’s very committed. She’s a hard worker. Usually if you work hard at something, you’re going to have success.”
(If you haven’t picked up our keepsake page of all-star trading cards, we still have a limited number of editions available. Just call (724) 654-6651 or stop into our business office and request the Saturday, June 29, newspaper.)
NEW CASTLE —
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