New Castle News
NEW CASTLE —
Their coaches never knew it, but the truth was there, sitting in the back of each of their pitchers’ minds.
Day after day, night after night, these two girls mustered all their remaining energy and dragged themselves back to the center of the diamond. They surpassed tired hours ago — it was pure exhaustion at this point.
Neshannock High’s Amanda Furst and Shenango’s Michelle Watson were the models of consistency — and fatigue. They never asked for a day off, and as badly as they wanted one, their passion for winning wouldn’t allow it.
Furst missed just one start in four years of softball, and Watson balanced two sports in the same season — and dominated in both of them.
“There were so many times where I was just like, ‘I don’t want to go to this one,’” said Watson, a pitcher who also was a star in track and field for the Lady Wildcats. “But I knew what I was getting into when I signed up for both, and I love them both, so there’s no way I could have not done one.”
Furst’s longevity was equally draining. She was the Lady Lancers’ pitcher the last four seasons, literally. Only one other person has pitched in a Neshannock softball game since Furst was a freshman. Every scrimmage, every game — regular season and playoffs — was started by Furst.
“There were a couple days where I was just over it,” Furst said. “Because we practiced every single day after school, so every once in a while I just felt like going home and taking a nap. But there are other girls you have to go (to practice) for. It’s not just about yourself.”
The two seniors never did take that day off. In fact, their coaches said it seemed like they never took a pitch off. Their durability brought forth amazing results, both on and off the field.
Furst and Watson are Lawrence County’s softball co-MVPs, as voted on by the New Castle News sports department.
The honor lauds two of the area’s best, not only for their skill in the circle but also at the plate and as leaders. Each batted cleanup and led their respected teams in home runs, belting four each.
Watson was second on the team in hitting, with a .438 average, and led the Lady Wildcats with 29 RBIs. She pitched every inning in 2012 as well, boasting a 2.52 earned run average, 150 strikeouts and 42 walks in 125 innings. Watson finished the year 12-8 and led a youthful Shenango team to the playoffs for the second consecutive season.
Her pitching style was a lot like her hitting: powerful, yet under control. She was able to fire a fastball past batters and then follow it up with a devastating change-up. It was a rare combination of finesse, power and consistency.
Watson’s coach, Amy Delaney, said she couldn’t choose whether Watson was a better hitter or pitcher.
“Being as successful as she was and having the numbers she had — I don’t know,” Delaney said. “I don’t think you can pick one or the other.
“Pitching, in itself, takes so much time. You have to want to put the time in and you have to want to be good. And hitting, a lot of the time she would go into her garage or go in her backyard and take 1,000 swings. She did things on her own, and that goes back to her work ethic and her drive and just how badly she wanted to succeed.”
Her ambition had to be unwavering, considering she channeled just as much focus to track and field as she did softball. Watson won WPIAL titles in both shot put and discus in 2012 and has won at least one of those two events each of the last three years. Balancing practice and game schedules wasn’t easy, but she pulled it off.
On days where she had a track meet and was forced to miss softball, she would call Delaney to come back to the field and work with her. And she did the same with her track and field coach, Brian Cooper, if she missed a practice because of softball.
“Her work ethic is uncomparable,” Delaney said. “With the amount of time she put in between both sports, and to be as successful as she was at both, it takes a special kind of athlete. Her attitude helped her, along with the athletic ability she has, but her work ethic is really what set her apart.”
Furst’s abilities differed from Watson’s in some ways and remained the same in others.
She utilized similar attributes at the plate, but her pitching style was bit more diverse.
Furst batted .349 on the year and tied for the team lead in RBIs (25) and doubles (4). She was spectacular in the playoffs, batting .435 after hitting .317 during the regular season. Her pitching was equally effective.
She went 6-1 during the playoffs with a 1.47 ERA and was the unquestioned leader during the Lady Lancers’ run to the school’s first state championship. During the regular season, she was 17-0 with a 1.41 ERA. Instead of using blazing fastballs, Furst relied on movement and pinpoint control, keeping batters from hitting pitches cleanly.
Neshannock coach Tracy Kimmel saw it all firsthand, and while he understands how impressive the numbers are, that’s not what made Furst so special in his eyes.
“She just doesn’t let much bother her,” he said. “That’s the temperament she has. If the kids would make errors behind her, she never showed that it bothered her. She just seems to be able to handle everything, and the kids see that. They see that nothing fazes her, and that relaxes everyone else.
“That’s important because everything starts out there on the mound. They (pitchers) get the credit when things are going good, but if we’re getting beat around, then everyone’s pointing their fingers (at the pitcher).”
Not much finger pointing happened this year. The Lady Lancers’ only loss came in the semifinals of the WPIAL Class AA playoffs, a 2-0 setback to Deer Lakes. They had to beat section-rival Riverside to even make the state playoffs. Furst crushed the go-ahead home run in that matchup (a 3-2 Neshannock win), and the Lady Lancers won their next five games, including a 4-3 extra-inning victory over Warrior Run in the PIAA championship game.
Again, her numbers illustrated just how clutch of a performer Furst was — with an ERA under 1.50 and a batting average that rose more than .100 points in the playoffs — but as the only senior on the team, Furst’s ability to adapt to and help bring together a young and inexperienced team was of more importance to Kimmel.
“She really fit in with the kids,” he said. “She knew this team was good, too. You could see it. They were always mingling together, and Amanda went with them a lot of the times. They did things together as a team. We just had great camaraderie this year, and I think that’s a big reason we went as far as we did.”
Keeping her composure even in the most pressurized situations is something Furst says comes with the territory, and it’s a situation she embraced rather than feared.
“I’ve always done OK with that,” Furst said. “Whenever you’re out there and everyone’s watching you, you have to keep your emotions in check. You just have to worry about what you’re going to do next. You can’t really dwell on something that happened before.”
Staying calm in such scenarios is easier said than done. That’s something Watson said she found out this year. She, too, worked with a very youthful team this season (she was one of two senior starters), but instead of becoming frustrated and upset when things went wrong, she talked to her teammates and helped them work through their problems.
“The mental aspect of pitching is tough,” Watson said. “The pitcher has to be the one who, even when the team is doing poorly, has to hold it together. You set the mentality for the game with each pitch. Pitching in general is not an easy thing, but the mental aspect is probably the toughest part.”
It’s a draining position, both mentally and physically, Furst and Watson said. And the rigors from both facets wore on them throughout the season. It kept them from different social and school events, like parties, dances, baseball games and other school functions. And while they were bummed out from time to time because they were missing out on certain things, they never considered blowing off practice or a game.
Both said staying dedicated was worth the work.
“There were a couple times when I was like, ‘OK, I’m sick of this. When’s this going to be over?’” Furst said. “But this year wasn’t as bad. I enjoyed it a lot more.”
Watson agreed, and said while she was exhausted and worn out at times, her love for the game and desire to win always reminded her why she was constantly pushing herself.
“I’ve never really been to the point where I’m like, ‘Enough is enough.’ But it was tough. I’m sure there’s days Amanda hasn’t wanted to go to softball,” said Watson, who looked over at her counterpart and laughed as she said it. “You’ll have that, just like people don’t want to go to work. There’s some days where you’re just like, ‘I don’t want to do this,’ but you do it anyway because you have to, and because you enjoy it.”
Watson and Furst helped others enjoy it just as much.
(In the print edition: If you didn’t pick up a copy of Friday’s keepsake page featuring trading cards of all the all-stars, there’s still time. Stop into The News business office or call Marty at (724) 654-6651, extension 610.)