SAULT STE. MARIE - George Kanyuh has managed his Rapid River softball team to much success since taking over the team in 2011. The Rockets have made the final four in each of his first two seasons and the goal remains the same this year. But this season holds special meaning to Kanyuh.
"This year, because of the players we lost, and the players we picked up - five freshmen, the weather and a variety of other setbacks, to pull it all together and come through the way we did to get to this point, it's really special to me," he said Thursday afternoon. "As early as last summer, there were people who said Rapid River's heyday is done and it would be back to the drawing board; the girls have heard some of that talk."
The Rockets have certainly responded. Against a heavily loaded schedule packed with opponents from upper divisions, the Rockets have still put together a winning record. It's an investment Kanyuh hopes will pay off entering Saturday's regional at Sault Ste. Marie.
The Rockets are set to face Rudyard in the semifinal. In the other half of the bracket, Posen will play Rogers City.
The Bulldogs have won three straight district titles, yet the two teams have never met in the postseason.
"I don't know a lot about them," said Kanyuh. "They show up at the region every year, so obviously they have a good program there. We're expecting them to be a formidable opponent that we need to prepare for."
The Bulldogs, like the Rockets, have a young team. They start three seniors but depend on a lot of underclassmen.
"We are a very young team and the majority of our starters are freshmen and sophomores," said manager Pat VanSloten. "We struggled during the season at times. Our No. 1 pitcher (senior Ashley Bonnee) had shoulder problems and we were forced to use some freshmen. We took some beatings for a while.
"She's back now. The shoulder isn't 100 percent, but it's good enough to allow her to throw."
In the district, Rudyard dispatched St. Ignace in a mercy-rule victory. They then pulled out a dramatic 10th inning triumph over Pellston, scoring four runs in the seventh inning to tie the game. In the district final, the Bulldogs romped over Newberry 11-1.
"That was our best game of the year," said VanSloten. "We made plays defensively and hit the ball pretty good all the way through the lineup."
The Rockets have no shortage of power bats this year as well. Seven players have hit balls over the fence this season.
"I've never had that the last two years," said Kanyuh of his power-hitting team. "It's not the end all, be all, but it gives the girls confidence that they can hit a ball hard. Seven girls with home runs is a huge confidence builder."
VanSloten was humorously blunt when asked about his plan of attack against the Rockets.
"Try to score more runs then they do," he said stoically. "I hope we can make the routine plays that will give us a chance, limit the mistakes and put the ball in play offensively."
The Rockets (17-14) entered their district with a 14-14 record and had to face formidable opponents' Norway and Ironwood. Both were well-balanced, solid hitting teams, but the Rockets dismantled Norway 7-1 before shutting down the Red Devils 10-0.
"My coaching staff and I have had a belief in this team all year," said Kanyuh. "It was just a matter of extracting the best each player could give this program, that we were tasked with. The personality and character of this team has responded to our training, and it's all coming together at the perfect time of the year."
Leading the charge are seniors' Neena Brockway and Averi Kanyuh. George Kanyuh praised the work ethic of both players as an example he hopes the rest of the team will follow.
"Neena started working out right after last season. She had a personal trainer and didn't go out for basketball, and instead got into physical and pitching condition. She's extremely dedicated and has put in a lot of hard work to get where she's at right now," he said. "Averi and Neena as the two seniors on the team have really stepped up as far as trying to set an example for everyone else as far as work ethic and dedication to the team concept. Averi has been my leadoff hitter and sets the tone. Neena sets the tone on the mound. Both, as seniors, motivate the others.
"Their work ethic is second to none and if the team learns anything, I hope it's how hard you have to work to achieve even the least amount of success. It takes a lot and those two have put it in big time."