By Geoff Kimmerly
Second Half editor
EAST LANSING – Mike Mokma had four innings Thursday morning to scout DeWitt’s lineup as he watched his school’s first MHSAA Semifinal from his post at first base.
As if the Holland Christian ace needed help, he also appears to take exceptional mental notes.
Mokma moved to the mound for the fifth inning, relieving teammate David Williams, and struck out five of nine batters he faced over three innings as the Maroons rallied to claim a 4-3 win over DeWitt and their first championship game berth.
Mokma, a senior who has signed with Michigan State University, improved to 14-0 this season and almost surely will get the call at McLane Stadium to pitch Saturday’s 9 a.m. Final.
“(Coach Jim) Caserta said entering the fifth inning to get ready, to start being ready mentally. Just staying in the game with every pitch, knowing what the hitter’s doing,” said Mokma, who struck out the side upon entering in the fifth inning with a runner on and a run just scored for DeWitt.
“The momentum swung from them to us,” Mokma added, “so it was good.”
Holland Christian (35-6), ranked No. 3 at the end of the regular season, will face No. 5 Linden on Saturday. Caserta, who led Holland West Ottawa to the Division 1 title in 2003 and is in his third season with the Maroons, will have the opportunity to become the first coach in MHSAA history to lead two programs to baseball titles.
His team advanced with a late and opportunistic rally after DeWitt took a 2-0 lead during the bottom of the fourth inning.
Holland Christian came back with two runs in the top of the fifth to tie the score. DeWitt scored its second go-ahead run in the bottom of that inning off Williams, leading to the pitching change.
Holland Christian tied it up again in the top of the sixth as junior Brady Brower singled home senior Josh Sterenberg, who had moved to third base on a passed ball. After Mokma retired DeWitt in order in the bottom of the sixth, Sterenberg had a hand in the winning run as well with a sacrifice fly to drive home junior pinch runner Cam Schut, who had made it to third on an error.
Mokma retired DeWitt’s final three batters in order to end the game.
“We had confidence in David. He’s been throwing great, so we felt coming in he was a little more rested than Mike was,” Caserta said. “(Mokma) could’ve started the game, but Mike will do what we need for the team. He’ll start, he’ll relieve; he’ll do what we need. He’s also carried us at the plate all year.”
Williams, who will play next season at Xavier University, gave up only one earned run over his four innings before moving behind the plate when Mokma came on in relief. DeWitt had only five hits, including two by sophomore catcher Kade Preston.
DeWitt junior Michael Stygles gave up only one earned run throwing all seven innings for the Panthers (30-10-1), who made their second Semifinal appearance in three seasons and graduate only two starters from Thursday’s lineup.
“It’s great to see the kids accomplish what they set out to do, especially when you set your goals this high,” DeWitt coach Al Shankel said. “To get here was great. We wanted a couple more.
“We felt we could get to their starter, and we started hitting the ball pretty hard off him. Credit to them that they went to (Mokma), because I think that would’ve continued.”
Linden 5, Dearborn Divine Child 2
While the rain began to fall harder Thursday, Linden’s spirits soared as it earned its first championship game berth since 2004 with a comeback win over the five-time champion Falcons.
Junior pitcher Lucas Marshall allowed only one earned run and struck out four in tossing a complete game for the Eagles (29-9-1), who increased their postseason run margin to a combined 23-3 over six opponents.
“It just shows that we’re not really the little guy anymore,” Marshall said. “We’re here to play anybody; it doesn’t matter. We’re going to give them our best game.”
Divine Child (27-16) scored the game’s first run in the top of the first inning. But Linden came back with three in the third inning and two in the fourth to put the game away.
Sophomore Nick Koan had a two-run single, the only player on either team to drive in more than one run. Junior Nick Gurney gave up only six hits for Divine Child.
“These guys are just blowing me away,” Linden coach Steve Buerkel said. “Because we lost a strong senior class last year. We had six kids that went on to play college baseball. We returned two starters. … We’ve just got a lot of kids that have a lot of heart and never give up and play hard.”
PHOTOS: (Top) Holland Christian's Chris Mokma lays down a bunt during his team's win over DeWitt at McLane Stadium. (Middle) Linden's Lucas Marshall prepares to unload a pitch during Thursday's Division 2 Semifinal win over Divine Child.
If there is anything that Brent Gates knows for sure, it's that there is no single explanation for three MHSAA Finals baseball championships.
For starters, the Grand Rapids Christian coach credits the superior coaching he had as a youngster, especially for helping him make the Michigan High School Baseball Coaches Association Dream Team in 1988.
From there, Gates points to the experience gained as a former Big 10 Baseball Player of the Year, a seven-year major league playing career that saw him rubbing shoulders with such notables as Hall-of-Famer Tony LaRussa and Minnesota Twins manager Tom Kelly, and then landing at a high school where the critical support he received from players, community and administration was priceless.
Put it all together and that, at least in part, explains Gates becoming the first Grand Rapids-area baseball coach with three state titles on his resume.
The Eagles' 2-1 win over Grosse Pointe Woods University Liggett in the June 17 Division 2 Final marked Gates' third title as a coach. His Grand Rapids Christian clubs had previously won back-to-back titles in 2012-13.
Gates passed former Grandville Calvin Christian coach Jay Milkamp as the Grand Rapids-area coach with the most state titles. Milkamp won in 1994 (Class C) and 1996 (Class B).
Gates, a member of three Halls of Fame, is quick to deflect the credit for three championships and two other championship game appearances. What he treasures most is being mentioned in the same breath as other legendary west-side coaches such as Jenison's Gary Cook, Ron Engels of Wyoming Park, Hudsonville's Dave Van Nord, East Grand Rapids' Chris LaMange, formerly Rockford and now Ada Forest Hills Eastern's Ian Hearn and Milkamp, most of whom Gates either played against while an all-stater at Grandville or through coaching at Grand Rapids Christian.
"I'm just a small piece of what has transpired in 11 years," he said. "Just to be mentioned with them and their success is an honor. (Three titles) is not an individual thing, but because of many people and what they can do working day in and day out together.
"I've always said the west side doesn't get the recognition it should in baseball. There are some great coaches here with great baseball talent, and I think you see that in the postseason."
If basketball can spawn what is affectionately known as "gym rats," then Gates is surely a classic example of the diamond's version of someone who has lived and breathed baseball his entire life. He was a two-time all-stater at Grandville who went on to a standout career at the University of Minnesota that included a lifetime .387 batting average. He was named the Big Ten Player of the Year in 1991 and consensus All-American. Gates played internationally with USA Baseball on the 18U team in 1988 and then the collegiate national team in 1989 and 1990. Over those two seasons on the collegiate team he appeared in 68 games, hitting a combined .363 with 49 runs scored and 54 RBIs.
He was drafted by the Oakland A's in the first round (26th overall) of the 1991 draft and went on to hit .264 in 685 major league games over seven seasons.
Upon his retirement, Gates founded the Frozen Ropes training facility in Grand Rapids, worked as a scout for the Tampa Bay Rays, became the West Michigan Whitecaps' second-ever manager in 2001, coached Byron Center for two years and has compiled a remarkable 298-89 record in two coaching stints at Grand Rapids Christian.
After virtually a lifetime in baseball, Gates said his coaching success can be spread in many directions. He said it began at Grandville, was influenced by such managers as John Anderson at Minnesota and LaRussa and Kelly at the major league level, and with brushing shoulders with many of Grand Rapids' most successful coaches.
The experience led him to a coaching philosophy that includes a priority on building relationships with players, providing a full explanation of his thinking to the players, a quiet but firm coaching of fundamentals, and, above all, communication. If there is anything that Gates does not do, it's relying on the "old-school" coaching method where coaches demand excellence in no uncertain terms.
"I've taken little bits and pieces from a lot of people," said Gates, a member of the Grandville, University of Minnesota and Grand Rapids Halls of Fame. "I want players to figure out who they can be. Whether it's Ken Griffey Jr. as a hitter, Randy Johnson as a pitcher or Terry Steinbach in catching, you don't just take one person and say who can I be? If you want to compete at a high level, you need to be better than anyone you go up against.
"Part of being a good coach, and it doesn't matter if it's a 9U program or high school, is about making players understand and be able to apply what they learn. Baseball is a hard game, one of failure where if you succeed three times out of 10, you're a star. You have to get players to understand failure."
Gates said all three Grand Rapids Christian champions were marked by different strong suits. The 2012 club, for example, breezed its way to a 36-5 record, while the 2013 club finished the regular season just 12-15 but put together a torrid seven-game winning streak during the tournament. This year's team was marked by a deep pitching staff and what Gates describes as a "group of gamers."
"All of them were different, but I firmly believe that pitching and defense win championships," Gates said. "But you also have to get hot at the right time."
It's not unusual for major leaguers to completely hang up the spikes once their playing days are over. They're tired of the pressure, the frustration of fading talent and losing the battle with Father Time, and the constant travel away from family. Gates faced all that and still found himself enthralled with the idea of coaching.
"I've loved the game since I was like 4 years old. There's nothing better than smelling pine tar or the look of manicured grass. The smells and sounds of baseball, that's what I love," he said.
One of his coaching goals is to impart the love of the game to his players. And it seems the message is getting across.
"It's awesome playing for him," said first baseman/pitcher Ty Uchman, who graduated this spring. "He gets us to focus on the little things. If there is something on our minds, we know we can go to him. He's an open book. I know he'll always talk to us, and that builds trust and a bond."
Another recent grad, infielder Kyle Remington, will follow Gates' footsteps to the University of Minnesota and said one particular trait sticks out to him about his coach.
"He's very patient," Remington said. "There are all levels of players in high school, and he treats them all the same. Doesn't matter if they're struggling; he never raises his voice. He's a very comfortable and relatable coach to play for.
"He knows baseball is a game of failure so if you don't understand a drill or an adjustment to have to make, he'll talk to you in a patient way."
Gates said he suspected even when he was a major leaguer that coaching was likely in his future.
"I did, and it was an easy decision. God has a plan, and I had a feeling I would stay in the game," he said. "Baseball has given me everything. I love the game, and I know I've been blessed. I want to take what I've learned and pass it along. That's always been a part of me."
2023 Made In Michigan
July 25: After All-American Career, Rockford's Bennett Making Impact as Mat Mentor - Read
July 20: Oakridge 3-Sport Star Potts Applying Lessons to 'Second Chapter' in Sales - Read
July 18: Frankfort Hoops Staff Bolstered by Past Stars Giving Back in Banktson, Kreski - Read
July 12: Championship Memories, High School Tennis' Impact Stick with Hackett Pair - Read
July 6: Brother Rice Finals Hero Aiming to Ace Family Life, Financial World - Read
July 5: Lapeer West 4-Time Finals Winner Set to Build Champions at Oklahoma - Read
PHOTOS (Top) Brent Gates appears on the USA Baseball collegiate national team in 1989 and makes a pitching change during this spring’s Division 2 Final. (Middle) Gates makes a tag at second base while playing for the national team. (Below) Gates presents the championship trophy this season to his Grand Rapids Christian players. (National team photos courtesy of USA Baseball.)