Vicksburg Not Done After Historic Run

By Pam Shebest
Special for

May 23, 2017

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.)