EAST LANSING – Portage Northern has made a habit of getting on top of teams early this season.
There’s no secret to that success. The Huskies are just that good at the plate.
“We can all hit,” senior outfielder Tyler Helgeson said. “This is a great lineup, this is a great team, because if one guy is having an off day, you know that the whole team has your back.”
Pretty much everyone in the lineup had a good day Saturday as the Huskies pounded out 12 hits on their way to a 10-4 victory against Rockford in the MHSAA Division 1 Baseball Final at McLane Stadium on the campus of Michigan State University. The title is the first in Northern baseball history.
“It feels surreal – it hasn’t really hit me yet,” Hegelson said. “This is what we’ve all been working toward. This has been our goal for four years now, and to finally accomplish it, it’s very special.”
Saturday’s win was Northern’s 24th over its final 25 games of the season, with its only loss coming against Division 2 finalist Orchard Lake St. Mary’s in the final game of the regular season.
“This group of kids is just phenomenal,” Northern coach Chris Andrews said. “They’ve been a selfless team, they’ve worked like crazy – we do mental conditioning, we practice then they do weight training twice a week, and these guys never complain. They put in all the work, and they play for each other. It’s just awesome.”
It was the second trip to the Finals for the Huskies (39-7), who had finished runner-up in 2015. Several of those players, as well as other alumni, were on hand to watch Andrews lift the trophy for the first time.
“It feels amazing,” senior first baseman Cam French said. “All of us seniors, we came in with a big goal, and we worked our butts off every day. Bringing home the first state title ever definitely feels good, and I feel like everyone knows that we earned it, so I’m happy.”
French and Helgeson had the biggest hits for the Huskies, as French drove in two runs during a four-run first inning and Helgeson hit a three-run home run over the wall in right field to highlight a five-run fifth.
They each had three hits on the day, as did Zach Quinn. Nolan McCarthy, Greg Lapetina (RBI) and Gannon Andrews (two RBI) each added one hit, while Parker Brey and Malcom Gaynor each added an RBI.
A balanced lineup has been key for the Huskies all season, as seven players hit above .380 for the year, and that doesn’t include the leadoff hitter Helgeson, who hit .355 with 30 stolen bases and will play at Eastern Michigan University next year.
With four Rockford errors sprinkled in, it was more than enough for Northern to distance itself.
“They hit the ball well, and they put the bat on the ball,” Rockford coach Matt Vriesenga said. “We didn’t make a couple plays, and really when you’re playing against a team like Portage Northern, you have to make plays. They’ve hit the ball all year long. They’re a great team. If we make a couple of those plays, maybe it’s a one-run, two-run game, but they deserved to win.”
Xander Morris was the beneficiary of that run support, picking up the pitching win in a complete-game effort. The sophomore struck out four while allowing seven hits and one earned run.
“Xander Morris, he’s a sophomore, unflappable,” Chris Andrews said. “The kid just throws strikes. He’s got a wipeout curveball, he can throw it over for a strike. He’s an amazing kid. He’s planning on being a Navy SEAL, and with that effort, I wouldn’t doubt it.”
Rockford (28-10) scored two of its runs in the third inning to make the score 5-2 at the time, but never was able to get closer. A solo home run by Zach Schamp in the fifth inning gave the Rams some late life, and they threatened again in the sixth only to have that rally cut short by a Brey throw to the plate from right field to prevent a run and end the inning.
“There’s no quit in them – they battled and they keep battling until the end,” Vriesenga said. “You know they’re not going to take an at-bat off. That’s what we’ve talked about; you might go 0-for-2 with two strikeouts, and the next time up you hit a triple, but you have to keep your head up and you have to stay in the game. A kid like Zach Schamp, to come up in his third at-bat and hit a home run – super proud of him and the rest of the guys.”
Grant Martin led Rockford with two hits, while Joe Kelley, Cody Sterkenburg (RBI), Isaac Toole and Owen Cairns each had one.
PHOTOS: (Top) Portage Northern's Tyler Helgeson (7), Gannon Andrews (2), Zach Quinn (27) and Malcolm Gaynor celebrate during Saturday's Division 1 Final. (Middle) Andrews and a Rockford runner race to the plate.
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.)