EAST LANSING – The moment. The venue. It all got to Beal City’s Keegan Haynes as he took the mound to begin his team’s Division 4 Semifinal against Gaylord St. Mary on Saturday.
Haynes retired the first batter, gave up a base hit and proceeded to throw 10 straight balls walking the bases full before going 2-0 on the fifth batter, Alex Pudvan. Aggies coach Steve Pickens came out to talk to his junior pitcher, settle him down and hopefully instill some confidence.
Haynes threw a strike and then got a bouncer to start a double play, pitcher to home to first. Just like that, the Aggies escaped the top of the first inning unscathed – and that changed everything.
Beal City scored twice in the bottom of the inning and tacked on four more runs in the second on the way to defeating St. Mary 7-3 at McLane Stadium to advance to Saturday’s championship game, which will be its first since 2014.
Beal City (22-8), winners of three previous MHSAA baseball titles, will play first-time finalist Unionville-Sebewaing (22-15) at 2:30 p.m. USA scored four in the first inning and went on to defeat St. Joseph Lake Michigan Catholic, 5-1, in the second Semifinal.
“That pretty much defined the game for us,” St. Mary coach Matt Nowicki said. “That first (inning) could have been promising for us.”
Instead of scoring a run or more, and perhaps knocking Haynes out of the game, St. Mary was deflated.
Conversely, Beal City got pumped up. Run-scoring singles by Haynes and catcher Cameron Lynch staked Haynes to a 2-0 lead. When the Aggies added four the next inning, keyed by Kollion Sharrar’s two-run triple, Haynes and Beal City were in command.
“I told (Haynes) to trust his defense,” Pickens said. “With that double play, we were only one pitch away from getting out of the inning.
“Hey, that’s a good team over there. We scored a number of runs today with two outs. We’re getting some timely hitting. We were moving the ball. We didn’t strike out much (four times) today.”
St. Mary (26-6) scored all of its runs in the fifth inning, stringing together five consecutive singles to knock Haynes out of the game. That was good and bad news for the Snowbirds. They finally got on the board, but the run also prompted Pickens to bring in his ace. Senior Brett Upton, 11-2 on the season, fanned the first two batters he faced, then got a pop out to shortstop that stranded two runners.
Upton, who threw 23 pitches in retiring all five batters he faced, will be ready to start on the mound in the title game.
“I had all the confidence in the world in (Haynes),” Upton said. “I wasn’t coming in at that time anyway. We had all the confidence in the world in our offense and that we’d come back and score. That double play was a big momentum swing. That was huge for us. The plan for me today was to come in for an inning or so and get used to the mound. I’m ready.”
Aaron Schafer relieved Upton in the sixth and got the final four outs.
Haynes got credit for the win and he also went 3 for 3 with two RBI.
“The nerves got the best of me in that first inning,” Haynes said. “(Pickens) said to me to throw strikes and calm down. Giving up no runs in the first, that was the best-case scenario. This is the biggest game I’ve ever pitched in.”
For St. Mary, Drew Long went all six innings and pitched well after the first two. Joseph Moeggenberg had two hits and an RBI.
Unionville-Sebewaing 5, St. Joseph Lake Michigan Catholic 1
Brendan Prime went the first 5 1/3 innings for USA to earn the victory. He survived a shaky start, and when his pitch count ran out, Devin Riskey came to his rescue. Riskey, likely Saturday’s starting pitcher, allowed one hit and struck out two in his 1 2/3 innings of work.
Prime allowed three hits and one run in the first inning, and allowed just one hit after.
“I don’t think I was in a groove yet,” Prime said. “After those four runs, when they got that one, I didn’t think about it much.”
Last season USA scored a bunch of runs early in a Division 4 Semifinal but failed to close out Portland St. Patrick. USA led 7-3 after three innings in that one before St. Patrick came back to win, 12-8, and go on to claim the championship.
“I thought back to St. Patrick last year,” USA coach Tyler Bader said. “We talk about getting to teams early. We wanted to stay on top. Stay on top. Stay on top.
“I felt we were going to do well in the tournament in the Districts. We’re not done yet.”
USA batted around in the first inning; the big hit was Braden Carter’s two-run single.
For Lake Michigan Catholic (27-4), starting pitcher Matthew Defay had a triple and scored on Jacob Kissane’s sacrifice fly. Defay gave up all five runs, but only two were earned.
PHOTOS: (Top) A Beal City runner tries to beat a throw to third base during his team’s Semifinal win over Gaylord St. Mary. (Middle) Unionville-Sebewaing’s Brendan Prime delivers a pitch as the Patriots earned a trip to Saturday’s championship game.
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.)