Record-Setting Gaylord Makes Most Historic Headline Yet with 1st Finals Win

By Tom Kendra
Special for

June 17, 2023

EAST LANSING – It was fitting that Gaylord senior Alexis Kozlowski got her team going on Saturday with a two-run homer to straightaway centerfield, at 220 feet the deepest part of Michigan State University’s Secchia Stadium.

It was home run No. 72 on the season for Gaylord, which continued building on a newly-achieved state record.

More importantly, it brought the huge crowd of Blue Devils fans to their feet and ignited the team in an 8-3 victory over Vicksburg in the Division 2 Final that clinched Gaylord’s first softball state title.

“This has been a goal of ours since we were little girls,” said Kozlowski, who was part of the Gaylord team which won a Little League softball state championship in 2016.

“We have so many good hitters. We knew if we kept putting the pressure on them, eventually we would break through.”

Kozlowski’s blast, her 14th of the season – ranking second on the team behind sophomore Aubrey Jones’ 18 home runs – opened the floodgates for the Blue Devils, who pulled away with three more runs in the fourth inning and three in the sixth.

It was a textbook offensive effort for Gaylord, as junior leadoff hitter Braleigh Miller went 4-for-4 and tied a Finals record with her four hits.

Vicksburg's Maddison Diekman (10) slides into second base as Gaylord's Alexis Shepherd looks to make the tag.With Miller getting on base repeatedly, No. 2 hitter Alexis Shepherd did her part with two long doubles (tying a Finals record) and four RBIs and No. 3 hitter Kozlowski added two hits and three RBIs, highlighted by her two-run blast into the oak trees behind the centerfield fence.

“Braleigh is the spark plug,” explained first-year Gaylord coach Tony Vaden. “When she gets on, everybody feeds off of it. These girls have been on a tear for the last month or so.”

Kozlowski also had the game-winning home run in Thursday’s Semifinal against Dearborn Divine Child, which broke the record for single-season home runs by a team, previously set by South Lyon East in 2021. Her shot Saturday increased that team total for the season to 72.

Gaylord, 39-2, had used three pitchers – Avery Parker, Abby Radulski and Aubrey Jones – to hold off Divine Child, 2-1. Jones came on in the sixth inning of that game and shut the door, striking out three of the four batters she faced.

Jones then earned the start Saturday and was in complete control, allowing just three hits and two earned runs, while striking out four.

Vicksburg, which also finished runner-up in 2016 and was trying for its first Finals title, was a home-run hitting machine of its own this spring. The Bulldogs finished with 61 home runs on the season, good for fourth in state history.

Avery Parker has been among the Blue Devils’ standouts this spring.Vicksburg cut the Gaylord lead to 2-1 in the top of the fourth inning when Maddison Diekman singled and then scored on a fielder’s choice.

The Bulldogs, 42-4-1, trailed 8-1 entering the top of the seventh, but never quit. Peyton Smith opened the inning with a homer, and the team then managed another unearned run.

“Their pitcher was very, very good,” said 10th-year Vicksburg coach Paul Gephart about Jones. “But our girls never quit. You could see it in that last inning. We were down big, but they just kept battling.”

Vicksburg senior pitcher Kennedy Davis, the hero of Thursday’s Semifinal win with a three-run homer, suffered her first loss of the season in the circle. Davis allowed 10 hits in six innings and finished the season 19-1.

The championship was especially gratifying for Gaylord assistant coaches Greg Jones and Lucas Shepherd, who both have standout daughters on the team.

Alexis Shepherd, a junior second baseman, has committed to Toledo. Jones has two daughters on the squad – junior Jayden Jones, a pitcher and shortstop who is out with a broken wrist but has committed to Virginia Tech; and sophomore Aubrey Jones, the winning pitcher Saturday who already has multiple Division I offers.

Coaches Jones and Shepherd have worked for years with this group of Gaylord players, who first made news with their Little League state title – and that odyssey continued Saturday with the school’s first MHSAA softball championship.

“Nobody knows exactly how much went into getting us to this moment,” Miller said. “We know, but not that many others do. That makes this extra special for us.”

Click for the box score.

PHOTOS (Top) Gaylord players celebrate their team’s Division 2 championship Saturday at Secchia Stadium. (Middle) Vicksburg's Maddison Diekman (10) slides into second base as Gaylord's Alexis Shepherd looks to make the tag. (Below) Avery Parker has been among the Blue Devils’ standouts this spring. (Photos by Adam Sheehan/Hockey Weekly Action Photos.)