RAPID RIVER - The Rapid River Rockets aren't making any excuses. The softball team knows they're in the same boat as their rivals in this early non-season.
"Like everyone else, we've been in the gym since March 11, over a month," said manager George Kanyuh. "Just this past week we get outside for the first time to give these girls some fly balls and use the game ball instead of the indoor ball. We had a front end loader come in and clear the ball field and hopefully we can get on it this week. We definitely ruined 6-7 balls in the parking lot last week. You have to do something and make do with what you have."
The Rockets are scheduled to open the season Wednesday against Stephenson, but that is tentative at this point. A more sure opener comes Saturday at the Boyne City Invitational.
"I think our evaluation of this year's team is going to be an ongoing process and hopefully by the time districts get here, we'll have figured out how to best utilize the talent we have," Kanyuh said.
And the Rockets certainly have talent.
This is a team in state contention, that has reached the final four at Bailey Park three of the past four years, and will aim to make it three in a row under Kanyuh this season. Kanyuh, now in his third season with the team, has compiled a 64-14 record and has developed the Rockets into a perennial title contender.
April 23 - Stephenson; April 24 - Superior Central; April 27 - at Boyne City Invitational; April 29 - Negaunee.
May 1 - Manistique; May 2 - Escanaba; May 6 - Marquette; May 7 - Gladstone; May 13 - at Munising; May 14 - at Superior Central; May 15 - at Marquette; May 18 - at Escanaba Invitational.
Still, there will be adjustments to be made this season, starting at pitcher. The Rockets lose ace Heather Sanderson to graduation. She is now a scholarship athlete at Wisconsin-Green Bay. Kanyuh aims to replace her with a rotation consisting of seniors Neena Brockway, Savannah Stenlund and Averi Kanyuh.
"All three pitchers go to the same instructor and all three have pitched since they were 8-9 years old," said Kanyuh. "There's nothing there for me to do. They take care of pitching themselves with the training they do and their parents. I'm expecting all three to share mound duties this season."
The Rockets will also find time to get sophomore Aslyn Brockway and freshmen Hannah Kanyuh and Erica Schwartz on the mound this season.
Kanyuh says when districts come around, he will have a decision to make on who the predominant pitcher will be.
"The whole season is an evaluation process at every position and come district time, hopefully we'll make the right decision based on the analysis of the team for what pitcher we'll use predominately. Maybe we'll go with a tag-team method of pitching," he said. "Neena has been working hard and we expect big things. Averi is a senior and has pitched her whole career and Savannah played some travel ball over the winter. They're all going to get the job done when its their time on the mound."
In all, seven players return and the team will welcome in five freshmen.
"We'll definitely have some freshman starters on the field this year," said Kanyuh. "Two or three freshmen will definitely be in the starting lineup. All five of them have experience so we're not reinventing the wheel. It's just developing team chemistry and getting them all on the same page at the same time. That's the important thing we're working on this year in addition to hitting and fielding. It's about getting your feet wet but also the mental and emotional part of the game."
The three additional freshmen are Dominique Pavlat, Hayley Brockway and Tessa Sundling.
Additional returning players are Kendall Miller, Rachel LaCosse and Lydia Froberg.
An upcoming condensed schedule in May could pose additional challenges for the younger Rockets on the team, which Kanyuh acknowledged.
"We've already lost 12 games this season. We had the Morley-Stanwood tournament cancelled due to flooding so we're going to Flint in May for a tournament that wasn't originally on the schedule. If it's not our school though, it's one we're rescheduling with. One week we have games three straight days with no time to practice," he said. "So yeah, it cuts in on training time for the girls. I told them we can sit back and do the 'woe is me' bit or we can knuckle down and find a way to get it done. Everyone is in the same boat north of the bridge."
The Rockets didn't play at the Superior Dome in late March but Kanyuh was there to scout opposing teams.
"Ironwood looks good and Ishpeming had some nice ballplayers. Superior Central is always a good team," he said. "Downstate, Onaway is in the running and Posen will be strong again. Beyond that, I don't know who's going to come out of the woodwork."
Regardless of the competition, Kanyuh is adamant that the bar is still set high as can be at Rapid River.
"We're not rebuilding. We're just retooling. As a coaching staff, we like the personality of this team. We have some new girls but we still have a decent talent level," he said. "I have no doubt we can make another run to Bailey Park. That's the goal. There will be some tough teams as always but I think by the end of the year, we'll be considered one of them."