EAST LANSING - There’s exceeding a coach’s expectations, and then there is exceeding the expectations Bridgman head coach Justin Hahaj had for his team when the 2023 season started.
“I went through the schedule and thought we’d be a .500 baseball team,” Hahaj said.
Bridgman ended up being 24 games – and a Division 3 championship – better than that.
The Bees ended up 33-9, with the last win a 7-1 victory over No. 1-ranked Algonac in the Final on Saturday at Michigan State University’s McLane Stadium.
The title was Bridgman baseball’s first since 1987.
“This is a miracle what happened with this group,” Hahaj said. “It’s just a testament to what happens when people play for each other.”
It was the second time Hahaj had coached Bridgman in Final, with the first in 2013 when the Bees lost to Madison Heights Bishop Foley.
Bridgman hadn’t been beyond the District round of the MHSAA Tournament since, with hurdles such as 2022 Division 3 champion Buchanan and Niles Brandywine always standing in the way during the opening week.
In a District Final this year, Bridgman used an incredible comeback against Niles Brandywine to get past that barrier. The Bees rallied from a 9-1 deficit to beat Brandywine in 10 innings, 10-9.
Bridgman then recorded one-run wins in a Regional Final (4-3 over Grass Lake), Quarterfinal (4-3 over Ottawa Lake Whiteford in nine innings) and Semifinal (3-2 over Standish-Sterling) to earn a shot at Algonac.
“The team that comes out of that District — because we play such good baseball against each other — is just primed and ready for tournament runs,” Hahaj said.
Bridgman completed its long tournament run thanks to the pitching of sophomore Charlie Pagel. By no means a hard thrower, Pagel confounded Algonac with guile and an assortment of breaking pitches, tossing a 3-hitter.
He struck out five and walked one.
“I don’t throw very fast, so I just wanted to keep them off-balance with the off-speed and that was about it,” Pagel said.
Making its first appearance in a Final, Algonac finished 38-4.
In addition to not being able to figure out Pagel, defensive miscues also proved costly for the Muskrats.
“You know every pitcher is going to be a strike thrower when you get to this situation,” Algonac head coach Scott Thaler said of Pagel. “I thought he did a nice job of getting strike one over. His curveball was working, so he was able to get some groundballs. We didn’t really do a good job of adjusting to those curveballs and off-speed pitches.”
Bridgman opened the scoring with three runs in the bottom of the third inning, taking a 1-0 lead after loading the bases with one out.
An infield popup eluded Algonac and landed fair, and while the batter was out due to the infield fly rule, a run was able to score. Senior Riley Gloe then singled up the middle to score two runs, one of which was earned and another unearned following an Algonac throwing error. Senior Nolan Roberts then blooped a double down the right-field line to score a run and make it 4-0 Bees.
Bridgman added two runs in the fifth inning on an RBI single by Roberts and a fielder’s choice.
Algonac finally broke through in its half of the sixth, cutting Bridgman’s lead to 6-1 on an RBI single by junior Evan Sadler. But Bridgman got that run back in the bottom of the sixth on an RBI double by Pagel to make it 7-1.
Pagel, Gloe, Roberts and junior Alec MacMartin each had two hits to lead the 10-hit attack for Bridgman.
PHOTOS (Top) Bridgman scores one of its seven runs during Saturday’s Division 3 championship game. (Middle) Nolan Roberts (2) and a teammate celebrate. (Below) Bridgman’s Charlie Pagel delivers a pitch. (Photos by John Castine/Hockey Weekly Action Photos.)
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."
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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.)