By Bill Khan
Special for Second Half
EAST LANSING — Avery Slancik of Vicksburg could empathize with her rivals in the pitching circle.
She's been where Livonia Ladywood's Rozlyn Price and Alexa Flores were Thursday. At some point, every pitcher has.
Slancik and her Vicksburg teammates took advantage of eight walks while hitting safely out of the infield only once, rallying from a 5-0 deficit to beat the second-ranked Blazers 7-5 in the MHSAA Division 2 Softball Semifinals at Michigan State University.
Slancik, a sophomore, remembers how she felt after the Bulldogs were eliminated in the Regional championship game last year.
"I had a similar situation last year when I gave up some home runs and our team got knocked out," Slancik said. "I feel for the pitcher. She pitched her butt off."
It was nearly a repeat of last year for Slancik, who gave up back-to-back doubles to begin the game, then surrendered a two-run homer to Price in the third inning. At that point it looked bleak for Vicksburg, trailing the tournament-tested Blazers by a 5-0 margin.
However, Slancik didn't allow another run or hit over the final four innings.
"I know my team has my back, and they can hit," Slancik said. "Whether I give up a home run, base hit or whatever, we can come back strong. We never quit. It all comes down to stress, if you can take the pressure. That's why I practice. I worked my whole life for this, and it's happening. It's like a dream come true. I know God put me in this position for a reason."
Vicksburg, unranked all season, will take a 36-8 record into the Division 2 championship game at 12:30 p.m. Saturday against Richmond at MSU's Secchia Stadium. It's the first time a team from Vicksburg had made it to an MHSAA championship game in any sport. The Bulldogs won championships in the non-bracketed sports of boys cross country (1963) and boys tennis (1974). Only three other teams from Vicksburg reached an MHSAA Semifinal, with the boys soccer team losing in 1997 and 2004 and the baseball team losing in 2015.
The Bulldogs reached the title game by beating three top-10 teams in their last four games: No. 9 St. Joseph in the Regional Semifinal, No. 10 and reigning champion Wayland in the MHSAA Quarterfinals and No. 2 Ladywood (32-13) on Thursday. Richmond (31-9) received only honorable mention in the final coaches' poll, setting up an unlikely Final.
"We haven't even been honorable mention," Vicksburg coach Paul Gephart said. "We've beaten teams that are ranked and haven't been given any respect at all. Yeah, it's awesome. Between Tuesday and today, we've earned a little bit of respect. We just find a way. I always tell them, 'Find a way.' We didn't really hit the ball well, but we found a way."
Vicksburg hit only three balls out of the infield in the entire game: a single up the middle by Carlie Kudary and two fly-outs to left field. The Bulldogs' other four hits were infield singles.
Epitomizing Vicksburg's "find a way" approach was junior catcher Grace Stock, who came to the plate four times but didn't have an official at-bat. She walked three times and had a bunt. One of her walks, on a 3-2 pitch, forced home a run.
"I was confident up to bat," Stock said. "I tried to swing at good pitches and let the bad ones go by and get on base to help my team. I did whatever it took. Get on base, score runs and be smart at the plate. We got on base any way we could and used our strengths."
Ladywood jumped out to its 5-0 lead with three runs in the first inning and two in the third. Flores led off the game with a double and scored when Cecilia Werner doubled right after her. Werner scored on a single by Elizabeth Kemp.
A two-run homer by Price over the 220-foot sign in center field made it 5-0 in the third.
The Bulldogs were unfazed.
"The amount of runs we've scored in the whole year, getting five runs is nothing," Slancik said. "We've beaten teams 24-0. We can come back from five runs."
Vicksburg began its comeback by scoring two runs in the bottom of the third inning, with three walks, two wild pitches, a passed ball and one hit helping deliver those runs.
The Bulldogs took the lead in a bizarre fourth inning during which they scored five times without hitting a ball out of the infield.
Olivia Holmes began the rally by leading off with an infield single. After four more walks, a bunt single and an error, Vicksburg had a 7-5 lead. Two runs scored on bases-loaded walks, with another crossing on a wild pitch.
Ladywood coach Scott Combs pulled his standout pitcher, Price, after her sixth walk of the game with one out in the fourth inning. She was relieved by Flores, who started at first base.
"The ball never left the infield," Combs said. "They did a good job of putting the ball down on the ground and getting a base at a time, but you can't walk (eight) people and expect to win. The disappointing part is we probably haven't walked (eight) in the last 10 games. That's on us."
After falling behind, Ladywood got a runner on base in each of the last three innings, but couldn't get the runner past first. The Blazers had six hits, three for extra bases, in the first 2 1/3 innings before their bats fell silent.
"We always preach the attitude that when you get up by four or five runs, play for one run each inning," Combs said. "A couple of bunts that we didn't get down were important. When you don't do that and people see the ball lasering all over the place, they change their swing and think they're going to hit home runs. It just got a little contagious. I don't want to say they were selfish, but they were trying to over-swing."
Richmond 5, Escanaba 2
Richmond broke a 2-2 tie by scoring three runs in the top of the fifth inning, reaching the MHSAA championship game for the fourth time. Richmond lost in the title game in 1985, 1998 and 1999.
"We've had our down points, but over the last couple of games we've started getting key hits and playing to our potential," Richmond pitcher Erin Shuboy said.
Richmond took one-run leads in the second and third innings, only to have Escanaba match those runs in the bottom of those innings.
No. 8 hitter Emma Caperton, who doubled home a run in the second, singled and scored the tie-breaking run in the fifth on a strange play. Amy Thueme reached first on a throwing error and headed for second after the overthrow. Caperton was going to stop at third, but she continued home when Thueme slid into shortstop Callie Heller, who fell on her and was shaken up.
Lindsay Schweiger and Shuboy singled home the other runs in the inning. Richmond tacked on one more run in the seventh on a single by Rachel Leach.
Shuboy, who had eight strikeouts, retired 10 of the last 11 batters she faced.
"We still hit the ball hard," said Escanaba coach Jamie Segorski, whose team finished 36-3-1. "Softball's a funny game. You miss the ball by an eighth of an inch and it's a fly ball. You hit it square, it's a home run. It is what it is."
PHOTOS: (Top) A Vicksburg hitter connects during the Division 2 Semifinal against Livonia Ladywood. (Middle) A Richmond runner slides under a tag in her team's win over Escanaba.