Balanced, Gritty Lamphere Back Among Baseball's Best

By Tom Markowski
Special for Second Half

May 27, 2021

Two walk-off home runs defined the success of the Madison Heights Lamphere baseball team’s regular-season championship run this spring.

The next two games will determine the success of the Rams’ postseason.

Lamphere – 22-3 and ranked No. 7 in Division 2 this week – is in the midst of one of the program’s best seasons, as the Rams captured the Macomb Area Conference Gold title outright posting a 13-2 mark. On May 19, Lamphere faced St. Clair Shores Lakeview in the last division game of the season. If Lakeview had won, it would have created a shared title with Lamphere (the teams also shared in 2019). But with one out in the bottom of the seventh inning, Nick Krstich, a junior catcher-third baseman, hit the first pitch he saw for a home run to give Lamphere a 4-3 victory and the outright championship.

“It was probably the greatest moment in my baseball life, and I’ve been playing since I was 8 (years old),” Krstich said. “It took me a few steps to realize it was out. All game they were starting me off with a curveball. They brought in a new guy. He threw a fastball, and it was in my happy zone. As I came around third, all the guys were waiting for me and they all jumped on me as I crossed the plate.”

Rewind another month to April 23, shortly before the start of the league season, when Lamphere played traditional power Detroit Country Day. In a wild affair, junior Aiden McGinnis, a spot starting pitcher who works mainly in relief, came to bat in the bottom of the seventh inning with the score tied at 13-13. McGinnis sent an 0-1 pitch over the left field fence for a 14-13 victory.

“That got us going in the right direction,” Lamphere coach Adam Wooley said. “That was cool. It showed we could play with anybody.”

Wooley is in his 20th season as the program’s head varsity coach and his teams, for the most part, have been competitive. His best were headed by players like Greg Fettes, Ryan Horvath and others a decade ago. In 2010, Lamphere reached the MHSAA Division 2 Regional Finals before losing to eventual champion Dearborn Divine Child. The next season expectations were greater with the return of Fettes and Horvath, but Lamphere lost to Country Day in District play.

“We had seven players who went on to play in college from those teams,” Wooley said. “We have five on this team. We won Districts in 2012 and 2014, and again in 2019. It probably sounds worn out, but I thought we’d be good this year. We had eight starters back (from two years ago) and they had had success. They were anticipating getting back together.

“I’m a lot different coach than I was 10 years ago. I was like a Kirk Gibson then, intense. Now I’m more like a Miguel Cabrera, more laid back.”

Wooley has 16 on his varsity roster, including nine seniors. There are no superstars – just a bunch of good players who pull for each other and have played a lot of baseball together over the years.

Wooley said he and his program hit a downturn for a few years following the 2014 season. Coaching had become a drudgery, not something Wooley looked forward to after teaching class (at Lamphere). Simply put, he got stale.

“I questioned myself,” he said. “It was getting to the point where I was getting frustrated. Then in 2017, I went to an aspiring principal program, as part of my wanting to become an administrator. I had a chance to look at myself. It made me look at my core values. Core values? What are they? I needed to change.”

Wooley redefined his role as a coach. He built his new approach on what he calls the three pillars of his program – trust, commitment and grit.

“The mantra is family,” he said. “We give up so much to be a part of this. You have to understand that we are working toward the same goal. That grit piece? I’m from Madison Heights. No one has succeeded in this town without hard work.”

After last season was cancelled due to COVID-19, Wooley knew there would be a transition period so he intentionally started the season late (April 9) to give his players time to get back to basics. And he’s convinced that extra time spent practicing paid off.

Lamphere’s strengths are hitting, one through nine in the order, and pitching. The players are patient at the plate, and they’re not afraid to fail.

Lamphere baseballOne of Lamphere’s top players is Jake Malak, a pitcher-catcher-outfielder, who will play at St. Clair Community College next season. Malak is batting over .400 and is 4-0 as the team’s No. 2 starter.

The third starter is Dylan Chargo, who’s 3-0 with an ERA below 2.50. He’s batting .350 with 10 extra-base hits.

Defensively, Lamphere makes the routine plays. K.J. Whitman covers a lot of ground in center field, and shortstop Noah Hurst earned the nickname “dirtball” because he’s always diving for ground balls and dirtying his uniform.

And Wooley has the luxury of rotating three catchers on a weekly basis – Chargo, Malak and Krstich.

Malak is one of the leaders and, like Krstich, was a starter on the football team. Malak comes from a family of catchers. His father, Ricky Malak, was a catcher at Madison High. His grandfather, Ronald Malak, also caught and his cousin Billy Malak was a catcher-third baseman on the Madison Heights Bishop Foley teams that claimed a Finals three-peat with Division 3 titles in 2011, 2012 and 2013.

“I love catching,” Jake Malak said. “I like being the leader on the field. I honestly love everything about it. You’re always doing something.”

To stay on top of his game during the cancelled 2020 season, Malak continued to do “something.” He worked with his father one-on-one on catching drills and hitting. Malak also joined a health club nearby to maintain his conditioning.

On Tuesday, Lamphere will play Bloomfield Hills Cranbrook Kingswood in a Division 2 District opener at Orchard Lake St. Mary’s. Cranbrook handed Lamphere its only nonconference loss, 9-4. The winner will play Country Day on June 5 in a District Semifinal. Should Lamphere win, the Rams will likely play the host team, top-ranked St. Mary’s, for the championship that same afternoon.

It’s a daunting task but one the Rams have been preparing for since the start of the season. And should they reach the District Final and play St. Mary’s which, by virtue of its title in 2019, is the reigning Division 2 champion, Lamphere would be a decided underdog.

So be it.

“Hey, it’s baseball,” Krstich said. “Anything can happen.”

Tom Markowski is a correspondent for the State Champs! Sports Network and previously directed its web coverage. He also covered primarily high school sports for the The Detroit News from 1984-2014, focusing on the Detroit area and contributing to statewide coverage of football and basketball. Contact him at [email protected] with story ideas for Oakland, Macomb and Wayne counties.

PHOTOS: (Top) Aiden McGinnis (22) and his Lamphere teammates have had plenty to smile about this spring. (Middle) KJ Whitman makes his move toward the plate Friday against Madison Heights Bishop Foley. (Photos courtesy of Allison Minowa and the Lamphere baseball program.)

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.)