Matt Conway said the 2008 Bloomfield Hills Brother Rice baseball team he played on wasn’t necessarily the most talented group to ever come through the state.
But that squad was still plenty good, and there was one thing that became evident during the playoff run the Warriors went on 15 years ago.
“Nobody really stood a chance,” Conway said.
It was certainly hard to argue.
During the MHSAA Division 1 Tournament, Brother Rice outscored its opponents by a combined score of 74-8 and never trailed during its seven playoff games.
The run culminated with an 8-0 win over Saline in the Division 1 championship game at Battle Creek’s C.O. Brown Stadium, led by a four-hit shutout from Conway on the mound. The title was Brother Rice’s third in school history and remains its most recent.
“The team camaraderie we had and the willingness we had to play for each other really showed in the way we dominated the playoffs,” said Conway, who now works for Center Rock Capital Partners, a private equity industrial firm based in Bloomfield Hills.
While the Warriors that year had camaraderie and chemistry, one thing they also had that other teams didn’t was Conway, who at the time was arguably the best prep player in the state.
Not only was the 6-foot-7 Conway an ace pitcher, he was also a fearsome power hitter at or near the top of the lineup.
The shutout in the championship game as a junior was only one of his achievements in high school, given he was also named first-team all-state in 2008 and 2009.
During his junior year, Conway batted .429 at the plate and was 11-1 on the mound.
Conway was an all-around force again for Brother Rice in 2009, but the Warriors fell short in their bid to repeat, losing in a Quarterfinal to Saline.
After graduating from Brother Rice in 2009, Conway went on to play baseball at Wake Forest, and his college career got off to a terrific start. He was named a freshman All-American at Wake Forest after leading the Demon Deacons with a .382 batting average during his first college season.
He went off during the summer after his sophomore year to play in the prestigious Cape Cod Baseball League in Massachusetts, arguably the nation’s premier summer league for college prospects and followed intensely by pro scouts.
Unfortunately, a knee injury made his time there short-lived.
“Unfortunately in the first game, I got hurt pretty bad,” Conway said. “I had to leave the Cape, and things weren’t really the same ever since.”
Conway eventually finished a nice college career at Wake Forest, but had to battle through more knee injuries.
He ultimately decided a professional baseball career wasn’t meant to be.
“At that point, I realized this is maybe not the path I was supposed to take,” Conway said. “I played through my senior year, and then took the uniform off and put on a suit. It was a little different, but I do believe things happen for a reason.”
Indeed, Conway has no complaints. He’s happily married to his wife Stephanie and has two children, an 18-month-old daughter and an infant son about a month old.
As an alum of Wake Forest, Conway was obviously thrilled to see the Demon Deacons advance to the College World Series semifinals and earn the No. 1 overall seed in the NCAA Tournament this season.
“I had a ticket booked to Omaha to go to the championship series if they made it,” he said.
Conway has worked for Center Rock Capital Partners since 2018 and has always had plenty of knowledge in the financial and business sectors, given his father, Van, is a renowned financial consultant who owns a firm in Birmingham.
While his baseball playing days have been over for a while, Matt Conway said the lessons he learned playing in high school for Brother Rice head coach Bob Riker, and at Wake Forest for head coach Tom Walter, prepared him well for his current career and will always be with him.
“Time management, prioritizing and making sure you are on top of what you need to get done,” Conway said. “It taught me more than I could ever think of.”
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2023 Made In Michigan
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PHOTOS (Top) Brother Rice’s Matt Conway walks to the plate to accept his medal after the Warriors' Division 1 title-clinching win in 2008, and these days is building a family with wife Stephanie. (Middle) Conway makes his move toward the plate during that 2008 championship game. (Baseball photos from MHSAA archives; family photo courtesy of the Conway family.)
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.)