After 2021 Semifinal Trip, Huron Building Toward Another Big Finish

By Doug Donnelly
Special for

May 10, 2022

NEW BOSTON – Phil Yancey learned an important lesson while coaching baseball to teenagers in the Dominican Republic – a lesson that he uses today with his players at New Boston Huron.

“The kids there play hard, from the warm-ups right through the last play of a game,” he said. “They give 100 percent. For many of them, it’s there only way out of poverty. Baseball is their ticket off the island.”

Yancey stresses to his players now to play hard every single minute they are on the field.

“Field that ground ball like it’s your last ground ball,” he tells them. “Go up to the plate like it’s your last at-bat.”

Yancey coached five seasons in the Dominican before becoming the varsity baseball coach at Huron High School in southern Wayne County seven years ago. He’s developed a rock-solid program at Huron, one that is currently ranked among top teams in the state and looks to be built for a deep tournament run. 

Huron went 26-8 in 2021, reaching the state rankings for the first time in school history. The Chiefs won Division 2 District and Regional titles and made the Semifinals before bowing out to eventual champion Orchard Lake St. Mary’s. That club had 10 seniors, but Yancey saw potential for big things this season.

“It was nice coming into the season with guys to build around, but we found some really talented players this year too,” he said. “We are playing pretty well right now.”

The Chiefs are off to a 17-2 start. The losses came to Grosse Ile in an early-season game and to Livonia Stevenson in an 8-7 slugfest. The Chiefs have a key matchup with Riverview this week, and a win would go a long way toward the team repeating as Huron League champion. 

The team is built with a solid core of seniors including shortstop-pitcher Cole Grunwald and centerfielder Matt Williams, plus juniors like Rory Callahan, Michigan State University commit-Gavin Moczydlowski and sophomore Micah Smith – who is quickly gaining the interest of multiple colleges.

Moczydlowski is the ace of the pitching staff and one of the top hitters on the team. He committed to MSU in the fall after a great season last year. 

“He throws 90-92,” Yancey said. “He’s a really good pitcher, doesn’t walk many, and hitters have a tough time with him.”

New Boston Huron baseballMoczydlowski would have been on the varsity as a freshman, but the season was canceled because of COVID-19. As a sophomore he broke a bone in his elbow during basketball season, and no one knew it until after he pitched – and won – the baseball season opener. He ended up playing first base all season due to the arm injury. This year he’s in the rotation, and Yancey considers him the ace.

“It like an addition to the team because he didn’t pitch last year,” Yancey said. “We like the combination of him starting and Micah Smith closing.”

Smith has been a pleasant surprise. He’s another hard-throwing righthander. Yancey wasn’t even counting on him when the season started, but he’s throwing in the 90s and has more than proven himself. Oakland University and the University of Pittsburgh have been in regular contact with Yancey about the sophomore, who has a 1.80 ERA with 34 strikeouts among the 84 batters he’s faced.

“He’s a diamond in the rough,” Yancey said.

Grunwald is 4-0 with an ERA under 1.00. Grunwald pitched a perfect game in the Regional Final last season and hit for the cycle in the Quarterfinal. He’s hitting almost .400 this season. 

Junior Lucas Coll is another solid piece of the rotation.

“We definitely have a better, deeper pitching staff than last year,” Yancey said. “It’s hard to win deep in the tournament with one guy or two. We have five. We are setting up nicely. It’s like we added a whole new pitching staff to our team since last year. 

“It’s a good problem to have.”

Catcher Connor Grant is hitting .468 with three doubles in his first season behind the plate. Ashton Warren is hitting over .500 in limited action, and Callahan has raised his average more than 100 points over last year and is batting .377.

Yancey says Williams might be the fastest guy in centerfield in the state. 

“When other teams look back at why we beat them, inevitably the answer is Matt Williams,” Yancey said. “He can dominate games.”

Yancey has coached on and off for about 20 years, including time as an assistant softball coach at Huron when his daughter was an all-state player. His time in the Dominican Republic was an eye-opener.

“The kids play hard, but they play loose,” he said. “They know they are out there to have fun. That’s one thing I tell my kids at Huron – play to have fun – but never take a play off. We’ve had very good results that way.”

New Boston Huron will start the MHSAA Tournament run with Carleton Airport. After that, Yancey has the path to Michigan State and the Finals well-mapped out. Now, the Chiefs must go out and perform.

“We’ve built a program,” he said. “It’s not a varsity team, junior varsity team and freshman team. It’s a program. We all wear the same uniforms. Every guy, from the nine guys on the field to the guys on the bench or guys on the JV team … they are all competing for spots. Everyone knows their number could be called at any time.”

Doug 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) Huron’s Gavin Moczydlowski drives a pitch while his teammates look on during a game at Chelsea. (Middle) The Chiefs’ Cole Grunwald pulls into third base during a game against Trenton. (Photos by Tom Hawley/Monroe News.)

Vast Experience Shapes Retired MLB-er Gates Into 3-Time Finals-Winning Coach

By Steve Vedder
Special for

August 1, 2023

If there is anything that Brent Gates knows for sure, it's that there is no single explanation for three MHSAA Finals baseball championships.

Made in Michigan is powered by Michigan Army National Guard.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.

Gates makes a tag at second base while playing for the national team.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.

Gates presents the championship trophy this season to his Grand Rapids Christian players."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."

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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.)