VICKSBURG — The first time Grace Stock played softball, she absolutely hated it.
The Vicksburg senior was just 8 or 9 at the time, and that dislike lasted all of one game.
In her second game, “I played second and there was a ball that was hit above me, and I went on tip toes and reached out my mitt,” she said.
“My eyes were closed and I caught it. After that, I just loved it and wanted to play all the time. I have a picture of it, too, which makes it even better.”
She may not be playing all the time, but she and her Bulldogs teammates hope to be playing well into the postseason.
Last year, her team became the first in Vicksburg school history to make an MHSAA championship game, losing 2-0 to Richmond in the Division 2 Final.
Losing just two seniors from that team, “people ask, reflecting back on last year, are your expectations the same?” fifth-year head coach Paul Gephart said. “I say, last year is in the past, and this year we’ve got to focus one game at a time.”
After flying under the radar last season, this year’s Bulldogs are ranked fourth in state with Districts set to start next week.
“It’s absolutely extra pressure,” Gephart said. “I think it motivates other teams. They’re going to bring their best effort against you.
“I think it’s bulletin board material for other teams and kind of fuels them. Now we’re on the other side of that, and there is that pressure as far as expectation.”
The Bulldogs take a 25-9-1 (16-2 Wolverine Conference) record into the final week of the regular season. They have clinched the conference title for the second consecutive year.
Three key seniors – Stock, Carlie Kudary and Shaidan Knapp – earned all-state honors last year and have been starters since their freshman season.
Sadie Martin – the team’s second pitcher and an “awesome” outfielder, Gephart said – and “really solid” first baseman Raquel Rice round out the senior class. Gephart said in his mind he refers to the seniors at the Fab Five.
“All five of them, the four years they’ve been here, the team has been academic all-state,” he said. “I think that’s huge that they’re that intelligent and that driven.
“The way it works in softball, individual academic all-state you get that award your senior year, and all five will get that award this year.”
Stock is second on the team with a .487 batting average and 44 RBI.
“She is a solid catcher, all-around catching,” Gephart said. “Offensively, defensively, she’s the best catcher I’ve been around or associated with in female softball.”
Stock was behind the plate and Avery Slancik on the mound for every postseason game last season.
“I used to be a pitcher, but I wasn’t too good at that. But I liked that I was in every play, so catching suited me well,” Stock said.
Slancik, a junior, started playing travel ball with the Portage Hurricanes when she was 8 and was coached by her dad, Michael Slancik.
“Dad actually coached nine of the 11 girls we have on the team,” she said. “Back in the day I was a pitcher and a catcher, but my brother was a catcher so I chose to pitch.”
When she was a freshman, her father put up a barn with three batting cages inside.
“Me and my brother (Trace), who is a freshman at Hope and plays baseball there, and a neighbor are out there all the time practicing and getting better every day.”
Slancik has been the Bulldogs number one pitcher since she was a freshman and earned all-state honorable mention last year.
“He’s coached baseball his whole life until I started playing softball,” she said. “Whenever we went to his house, we’d always play catch.
She and Stock are best friends, which will make for an interesting season in another year. While Stock will play softball at Calvin College after graduation, Slancik plans to play at Hope the following year. “It’s going to be fun,” Slancik said. “They’re big rivals, but we’re going to stay best friends.”
Kudary, meanwhile, is a slap-hitter and one of the fastest players on the team.
“She gets on base a lot for us and since she bats leadoff, that gets us going right away,” Gephart said. “As a freshman, initially she was on the JV and we brought her up when we had an injury, and she’s been a starter ever since.
“She has so much speed, there are teams who would have really good hits in gaps, but she gets to them. That makes us really solid up the middle with Avery pitching, Grace catching, Shaidan at shortstop and Carlie at center.”
Knapp leads the team with a .510 batting average and 50 RBI. Her grandfather, Ed Knapp, got her started playing softball.
“He’s coached baseball his whole life until I started playing softball,” she said. “Whenever we went to his house, we’d always play catch.
“I’d ask to go to the park to hit instead of playing at the playground. I’d want to hit softballs. He’s been with me through the whole experience.”
Ed Knapp, who has coached various sports since 1964 and baseball until 1998, is Gephart’s assistant. He is also a member of the Michigan High School Coaches Association and Vicksburg halls of fame.
Knapp’s sister, Tailynn, is a freshman infielder – but they don’t get special treatment from their grandfather.
“He doesn’t really treat me like a grandchild, but at the same time, he’s such a sweet old man he acts like everyone’s his grandchild,” Shailyn said. “It’s nice to be able to see him on the field because I know him off the field. He’s a really fun guy.”
Ed Knapp said there is a down side to coaching his granddaughters
“People are always going to say, yeah, they’re playing because he’s the coach. They always say that until they look at how they play. No coach can survive if they play favorites.”
On the up side, “It’s a lot of fun watching them progress and get better. They really listen. It’s easy to work with them because you can do it in more of a grandfatherly approach.”
He hopes to instill words of wisdom to the players from his decades of coaching.
“You have to have fun. That’s the main reason kids play sports, is to have fun,” he said.
“I just cringe when I hear some of these coaches screaming and yelling at their players. You can just see those girls with their heads going down.”
Team bonding plays a big role in Vicksburg’s success.
“The key is how close we are and just trusting that the person behind us has each other’s back,” Slancik said. “For instance, if one of us gets out, the next person will get another hit.
“If one person makes an error, the next person can step up and say, ‘It’s all right, I’ve got you.’ We’ve been implementing that into our game.”
Stock recalled how the team also got a boost from the community when it returned from the MHSAA Finals last year.
“Fans were lining the street and, we got escorted by police officers and fire trucks, so that was pretty cool,” she said. Later that summer, “There was a party at the football field for family and friends. We got all of our awards, and parents told us how proud they were of us.”
Of course, Vicksburg was disappointed to end the Cinderella season with a loss. But being one of two Division 2 teams standing at the end was special.
“You never want to lose,” Kudary said. “We have to look at it from a better perspective and realize we were the second team in the state to get there.
And yet, “We have to keep our focus and keep working hard at practice. We can’t let last year’s season interfere with this year’s season.”
The other junior on the team is third baseman/outfield Lauren Goertler.
The lone sophomore is pitcher/infielder Kali Yant, and other freshmen are catcher/outfielder Camille Wadley and third baseman/pitcher Rylie Richter.
Pam Shebest served as a sportswriter at the Kalamazoo Gazette from 1985-2009 after 11 years part-time with the Gazette while teaching French and English at White Pigeon High School. She can be reached at [email protected] with story ideas for Calhoun, Kalamazoo and Van Buren counties.
PHOTOS: (Top) Vicksburg pitcher Avery Slancik warms up before an inning during last season’s Division 2 Final at Michigan State’s Secchia Stadium. (Middle top) From left: Carlie Kudary, Avery Slancik, Shaidan Knapp. (Middle below) Vicksburg’s Grace Stock, last season catching the championship game and also as a child catching with her eyes closed. (Below) From left: Bulldogs head coach Paul Gephart and assistant Ed Knapp. (Middle photo provided by Grace Stock.)
Evart was added to the MHSAA softball record book 23 times for achievements during an outstanding three-season run that has included a Division 3 runner-up finish in 2022.
Then-junior Katelyn Gostlin twice was included for hitting streaks, of 26 straight games during the 2022 season and 22 straight this past spring. She also was added for 23 doubles in 2022, and then-senior Addysen Gray was added for 16 doubles in 2023. Ally Theunick was added for 11 home runs this spring and 23 over her first three seasons with one more to play. Gostlin, Theunick and 2021 graduate Ryenn Baumgardner all were added for single-game accomplishments.
Among team record listings, Evart had 405 hits, 419 runs, 85 doubles, 35 home runs and 328 RBI over 39 games this spring. Gostlin has signed with Mid-Michigan College, and Gray is playing softball and basketball there this school year.
See below for more recent additions to the MHSAA softball record book:
Olivia Mikowski followed up her Maple City Glen Lake team’s Division 4 basketball championship in March with a national record this spring on the diamond. She tied the MHSAA and national records with 20 triples, over 35 games, among five record book entries she earned. She also is listed for 74 RBI this past season, while now-junior Jessie Pugh earned a listing with 66 runs scored over 37 games. Mikowski is continuing at Schoolcraft College.
Essexville Garber finished a combined 71-14 over the last two seasons and reached the Division 2 Semifinals in 2022 after winning its first Regional title since 1997, along the way achieving several record book performances for both team and individual lists. The Dukes hit 53 home runs over 41 games this past spring, tying for sixth most as senior Sarah Basket set a program record and made the individual list with 12. Basket also was added for 21 doubles in 2022, with Laney Kokaly making the doubles list that season with 16 and Ella Wagner making it was 16 this past season. Kortney Kotenko set the previous Garber home run record in 2022, making the record book list with 11. All four were seniors in 2023. Kotenko is continuing at Madonna, while Basket is playing at Lawrence Tech and Wagner at Northwood. Kokaly is playing volleyball at Northwood.
Three Rivers and now-senior Ava Forman made the single-season hits list with 75 over 41 games and the single-season doubles list for 22 last spring and also 18 over 40 games as a sophomore. Three Rivers as a team made the records for 423 hits, 101 doubles and 277 RBI over 42 games in 2023.
Armada’s Taylor Capozzo had 19 doubles in 2023 to make that single-season list, plus hit back-to-back home runs in a game against Yale, and Natalie Sauer drove in six runs in a game against Brown City. Capozzo is a sophomore this school year, and Sauer graduated in the spring and is continuing at St. Clair County Community College.
Schoolcraft’s Lauren Evans hit 31 doubles in 2023 as a junior, the second-most in MHSAA history, as the Eagles totaled 118 over 41 games – also the second-most doubles on the team list. Schoolcraft also made record lists for 436 hits and 316 RBI for the season and five home runs in a game against Battle Creek Pennfield (which included back-to-back homers by Evans). Teammate Sydney Drenth, then a sophomore, made the doubles list with 22, and senior Alayna Meade made the same list with 16. Meade is continuing at Cornerstone, and Evans has committed to sign with Saginaw Valley State.
Farmington Hills Mercy finished 29-1 in 2023, earning four record book entries along the way. The Marlins tied for second-fewest runs allowed, giving up only 16. They also made lists for 11 consecutive shutouts, 385 strikeouts and a .435 average and just missed the single-season shutouts list with 23.
Unionville-Sebewaing’s 2022 Division 4 championship season produced another series of record book-worthy accomplishments. As a team, USA set an MHSAA record with 128 doubles over 40 games and was fourth on the team RBI list with 391, while also earning entries with 44 runs scored, 485 hits and 48 home runs. Individually, then-sophomore Gabriella Crumm was added for 80 hits, 21 doubles and 11 home runs, and then-senior Laci Harris was added for 11 home runs as well plus 72 hits, 19 doubles and career totals of 31 home runs, 170 RBI, 170 runs scored and 51 doubles over 123 games despite her sophomore season of 2020 being canceled due to COVID-19. Then-junior Oliva Jubar was added for 18 doubles, and then-sophomore Ella Neumann was added for 17. Harris is continuing her career at Madonna.
Paige Ratliff finished her Battle Creek Lakeview career in the spring with 10 record book entries across a variety of categories. Most notably, she totaled 37 doubles, 30 home runs and a .520 career average over three seasons and 108 games. She’s continuing at Lake Forest College (Ill.).
Hudson then-freshman Taylor Kopin opened her high school career in the spring by scoring 65 runs to make the individual record book. In doing so, she also helped Hudson make the team record book list with 417 runs scored over 39 games.
Haslett’s Payden Whitmore earned her school’s first softball record book entry since 2007 by hitting 12 triples over 38 games in the spring. She’s a junior this school year.
Mancelona has a pair of softball players who reached career lists last season with more to play. Now-senior Ella Jones was added for 20 doubles as a sophomore in 2022 and 19 this spring, and made the career doubles list with 39 and a season to play. Now-junior Ella Schram was added for her 13 triples as a freshman and .650 average this spring, and she’s on the career triples list with 23 and will qualify for the career average list if she keeps hitting at this pace over her next seasons.
Mount Pleasant Sacred Heart hit the second-most triples in MHSAA history on the way to the Division 4 Semifinals in the spring. The Irish piled up 48 over 43 games, led by freshman Mairin Wheaton, who hit 12 over 42, respectively.
Reed City made the team record lists with 78 doubles and 252 RBI over 39 games in the spring, and a pair of standouts also were added. Morgan Hammond, then a freshman, and then-sophomore Paityn Enos both were added for single-game RBI, plus Enos was added for 72 hits and 20 doubles and Hammond was added for 22 doubles.
Manton now-junior Adriana Sackett earned her first record book listings in the spring. Twice she hit back-to-back home runs in games, and she also was added for 11 homers total over 26 games.
A trio of Ravenna standouts put up a series of record book-caliber totals over the last two seasons, including some of the highest-ranking all time. Emma Gillard graduated in the spring with nine record book entries, including for 85 runs (fourth most) and 13 triples (tied for 20th) this past season, and she made career lists with 200 runs, 27 triples and a .532 average over 111 games and three years. Emma Herremans is just a junior but has 11 record book listings after two seasons including for 25 doubles (11th-most) as a freshman in 2022 and a .652 average and 73 RBI this past spring, and she’s already on career lists for doubles and triples. Kara Postema graduated this spring with six record book entries, including season and career records for times hit by pitch (23 and 49, respectively), and she also made career lists with 36 doubles and 153 RBI over 111 games and three seasons. Gillard is continuing at Ferris State and Postema at Cornerstone.
PHOTO Evart's Riley Brigham connects during her team's Division 3 Final against Millington in 2022.