Team of the Month: Gaylord Softball

By Geoff Kimmerly senior editor

June 9, 2023

Gaylord has set a standard few have matched the last few seasons, landing that bar at an elite level since taking a freshman-filled team to the Division 2 Semifinals two years ago and coming within a run of toppling that weekend’s eventual champion.

Those freshmen are now eight juniors, book-ended by two seniors and two sophomores for a team that took over the No. 1 ranking in the state coaches poll at the start of May and is 34-2 heading into this weekend’s Regional at Cadillac.

The MHSAA/Applebee’s “Team of the Month” for May also won the Big North Conference for the third-straight season and swept league competition for the second in row, swept Division 3 top-ranked Evart among other high-caliber wins, and last weekend added to a regular-season shutout of Escanaba with a 13-1 win over the No. 2-ranked Eskymos on the way to a District title. Escanaba had eliminated Gaylord in last year’s Regional Final.

“I think the way they play to the standard, regardless of what the score is, that’s just kind of a mindset thing. They’re really just trying to be excellent in everything that they do,” Gaylord coach Tony Vaden said. “They’re always practicing the fundamentals of the game as much as possible, trying to be great at every aspect that they can. And I think that’s the difference between us and a lot of the other teams, is that there’s a real focus on playing to our standard at all times.”

Vaden said he could see the beginnings of establishing that high standard before this season, but it’s really taken hold this spring in part because his players are starting to be presented with college opportunities.

The first-year varsity coach – who previously led the JV – also said he must give leading credit to his assistant Greg Jones, whom he called the “architect” of the current success. A two-time Class D baseball champion at Hillman and then standout player at Central Michigan coached most of the Blue Devils in youth ball, leading them to a Little League state championship in 2015.

Vaden said seven of his 10 upperclassmen are at some stage in the college commitment process for softball – including senior Alexis Kozlowski (signed with Ferris State), junior infielder/pitcher Jayden Jones (Greg’s daughter, committed to sign with Virginia Tech) and junior second baseman Alexis Shepherd (committed to Toledo). Four more juniors also have committed to college softball programs, junior Avery Parker will sign with Northwood basketball, and Vaden said he anticipates college opportunities for remaining uncommitted Blue Devils as well. Sophomore Aubrey Jones – Greg’s daughter as well – already has offers from Oklahoma, Oklahoma State and Virginia Tech.

“They know there’s eyes upon them, so they’re just really focused on what they’re doing at all times,” Vaden said. “Not to mention the fact we have our individual goals and we have our team goals, and they need to play to the standard to meet those.”

The numbers the team has put up so far are setting a bar for those to come as well.

The Blue Devils have scored 401 runs with 425 hits including 105 doubles and 66 home runs, with a team average of .438. All of those make the MHSAA record book right now – the average eighth all-time if they maintain it, with the doubles sixth and climbing and the home runs second and four off tying the state record.

Kozlowski is hitting .591 with 21 doubles, 11 homers, 59 RBI and 23 stolen bases. Junior Taylor Moeggenberg is hitting .524 with nine home runs and 44 RBI, and Aubrey Jones is right at .500 with 16 homers and 59 RBI. Five more players are hitting .420 or better, and the team has a an 0.82 ERA with Parker, the Jones sisters and senior Abby Radulski contributing in the circle.

Major tests are coming Saturday with No. 10 Big Rapids in a Regional Semifinal and then either No. 4 Essexville Garber or honorable mention Freeland if the Blue Devils advance.

But there’s something else of championship value that sticks out to Vaden almost as much as that high standard to which his players are aspiring.

“They’re always cheering each other on, and they also hold each other accountable. You don’t always see that,” he said. “They’re still teenagers, and it’s hard to say to another person, ‘Hey snap out of it. Let’s go.’ But they’re all around each other all the time, they’re all in class together. And they’ve been around each other since they were little.”

Past Teams of the Month, 2022-23

April: Saugatuck girls soccer - Report
Croswell-Lexington competitive cheer - Report
Hart girls & boys basketball - Report
Taylor Trillium Academy girls bowling - Report
Byron Center hockey - Report
Martin football - Report
Gladwin volleyball - Report
Negaunee girls tennis - Report

PHOTO courtesy of the Gaylord athletic department.

Grass Lake Slugger Turner Writing Name All Over MHSAA Record Book

By Doug Donnelly
Special for

May 7, 2024

Bill and Julia Turner have not only put in a lot of miles on the road, but they’ve also put a lot of miles in on the softball field.

Greater DetroitBefore Olivia Turner was hitting the cover off the ball and becoming Michigan’s career RBI leader for the Grass Lake softball team, Bill and Julia were taking her to the field for batting practice.

“I always wanted to go to the field, and my dad would take me and my mom would shag balls in the outfield,” Olivia said. “They’ve spent countless hours, especially traveling around the country. They’ve been my biggest support system. They are awesome.”

Her Warriors teammates are grateful, too. Last week Turner became Michigan’s all-time leader in runs batted in, surpassing Taylor Light & Life Christian’s Kelly Kennedy, who held the record with 304 RBIs from 1991-94.

“It was crazy to think I beat a 30-year-old record,” Turner said. “I couldn’t have done it without my teammates. I’m just super thankful.”

Having her name on the state record book for softball is nothing new to Turner. She barely missed the state mark for RBIs in a season last year when she had 102 and is the state’s all-time career doubles leader already.

Grass Lake head coach Roger Cook said Turner never talks about hitting home runs or driving in runs – just about being a teammate.

“I’m going to tell you, she’s one of the most modest people you’ll ever talk to,” Cook said. “She just talks team, team, team. She always has since I’ve known her. She has never said one thing about a home run or a base hit.”

Turner, who plays third base, has been around the Grass Lake program for a long time. When her sister Madeline was playing for the Warriors before heading off to play at Findlay University in Ohio, Olivia would tag along.

“I just wanted to be at the field, be around softball,” she said.

Turner first picked up the game when she was on an 8-and-under team.

“I fell in love with it,” she said.

Turner will graduate this spring with multiple MHSAA records.She started as a pitcher, but quickly converted to infielder, where she has played with Grass Lake and various travel teams. She also plays volleyball and basketball for Grass Lake, but softball is her sport.

“We’re all one family,” she said. “I love that you get to play with girls that you may not be friends with at school. It shows you who you are. Softball gives you a lot of life lessons – dedication, teamwork, how to work with others.”

She loves to hit, too.

“Every at-bat, even if there is no one on base, I want to get on base,” she said. “I’m always going up to the plate doing it for my team, not for myself. The RBIs are pretty cool. My team gets on base for me. All of the girls are phenomenal.”

Cook said he sometimes gets worried that opponents will just pitch around Turner. But because of who is in the lineup in front of and behind her, he doesn’t have to worry about that.

“We have Rylee Fitzpatrick, Emily Brown, then Olivia,” Cook said. “After Olivia we have (junior) Bree Salts, who has committed to Central Michigan. It’s hard to pitch around her. When we get to some of these big games, teams will have to throw to her.”

Last year’s Division 3 runner-up Ottawa Lake Whiteford has faced Grass Lake multiple times over the past couple of seasons, and coach Matt VanBrandt is plenty familiar with the damage Turner can do.

"You'd better have a plan when you are pitching to her,” VanBrandt said. “She’s a dangerous hitter. She’s someone you need to think about before the game starts.”

Turner hit .714 last season with 30 doubles and those 102 runs batted in. For her career, she’s belted 48 home runs and knocked in 309 runs after Saturday’s tournament. She’s never hit below .535 for a season and is nearing 100 career doubles.

Grass Lake currently is 22-1 and leading the Cascades Conference.

“It’s crazy to think I am actually a senior now,” Turner said. “Now that it is my senior year, I just want to work hard and play for my team. We’ve had great seniors the last couple of years. It’s crazy to think this is my last season.”

Turner will attend Bradley University in Peoria, Ill. She chose Bradley because of its nursing program.

“Academics has always been first for me,” she said. “I fell in love with the campus. It’s not too big or too small. The staff there is great.”

Before taking her swing to college, Grass Lake wants to make a deep tournament run this season. And the more games the Warriors play, the more RBIs Turner is likely to add to her record.

“Olivia has one of the smoothest, most beautiful swings I’ve ever seen,” Cook said. “She’s one of the girls you want up there at bat with the game on the line. She can do it all. If you need a single, she’ll get you a single. If you need a walk-off, she can do that, too.”

Doug DonnellyDoug Donnelly has served as a sports and news reporter and city editor over 25 years, writing for the Daily Chief-Union in Upper Sandusky, Ohio from 1992-1995, the Monroe Evening News from 1995-2012 and the Adrian Daily Telegram since 2013. He's also written a book on high school basketball in Monroe County and compiles record books for various schools in southeast Michigan. E-mail him at [email protected] with story ideas for Jackson, Washtenaw, Hillsdale, Lenawee and Monroe counties.

PHOTOS (Top) Grass Lake’s Olivia Turner focuses on a pitch coming her way. (Middle) Turner will graduate this spring with multiple MHSAA records. (Photos courtesy of Pictures by Marisa and the Grass Lake softball program.)