Rocco Comito could see signs of good things to come during his freshman season on the Marine City Cardinal Mooney baseball team.
He just didn’t know how good.
“I didn’t see this at all,” said Comito, now a senior. “I thought we were going to be good eventually, but not where we’re at now.”
Comito and his teammates won the school’s first Regional title since 1997 during the 2019 season, and after the 2020 season was cancelled, they’ve come back looking for more. Mooney is the preseason No. 2 team in the Michigan High School Baseball Coaches Association Division 4 rankings, and has started 5-1.
“Honestly, it feels amazing,” said Comito, who was an all-state selection at catcher in 2019. “Just to be part of it all.”
Comito and classmates Anthony DiGiuseppe and Tommy Gill, who are the lone seniors on this year’s team, did have some success immediately, as Mooney won a District title in 2018. That was the school’s first since 2010, though, and when Mike Rice had taken over the program before the 2017 season, the Cardinals were struggling to put enough players on the field let alone make any type of postseason run.
Eight players came to Rice’s first tryout, forcing him to find athletes roaming the small Catholic school’s hallways to fill out a roster.
“It was an eye opener,” said Rice, a 1994 graduate of Harper Woods Notre Dame, who himself played in the Detroit Catholic League. “Personally, for me, I love the teaching part. A kid came up to me and said, ‘How do I bunt?’ in the first practice. I didn’t get mad; I actually liked it. I like teaching baseball.”
Now, Rice has no trouble filling the roster. This season’s tryout featured 36 players, and for the second consecutive season, Mooney has been able to field a junior varsity team.
“I’m so proud of it,” Rice said. “I moved them into the upper division in the JV this year. We have a good coach there that kind of treats it as a developmental, minor league program. It’s just about getting better. That way, they’re ready when they come up.
“It’s a quote-unquote program now. Coach (Michael) Hunt runs his practices the same way I run mine. When they come up to my team, it’s the exact same thing.”
As the program has grown, so has the depth of talent on the roster. Rice said this year’s team is the deepest he’s had.
“I have about eight pitchers now on this team,” he said. “We’re fully loaded up as far as position players go. We’re a more complete team from top to bottom, including the bench. We have, in my opinion, four top-notch starting pitchers, not including relievers.”
Gill struck out 22 batters over his first two starts of the season and carried a no-hitter through 6 2/3 innings of the opener against Lutheran Northwest. Nathan Super no-hit Waterford Our Lady of the Lakes on Mooney’s second day of action, and Blake Lutzky struck out six over 2 1/3 innings in his first appearance.
The Cardinals have also shown off their depth in the lineup, with everyone from leadoff hitter DiGiuseppe – who is 5-for-5 at the plate to start the year – to junior Nick Garcia – a home run from the nine hole – getting in on the act. Comito has a pair of hits in each of the Cardinals’ past two games, while sophomore Trent Rice (six hits), junior Tom Rice (five RBIs) and sophomore Ryan Trombley (five RBI) also have had strong starts to the year.
“We have a super strong team of athletic guys this year,” DiGiuseppe said. “We have the most athletes on this team than all the other teams I’ve been on at Mooney. Everybody knows their role, and it’s cool to have those guys on the bench we know can come in and do their job.”
Gill added that the depth of the team gives the players confidence each time they step onto the field.
“I think confidence is key,” Gill said. “If you’re confident, you can almost beat anyone.”
Mike Rice said the growth of the program is all about the players on the field. Gill, though, said his coach should be taking a lot more of the credit.
“He’s a great coach,’ Gill said. “His attention to detail is very, very good. It helps us all get better. He’ll see a little thing that’s wrong and corrects it, something that most people wouldn’t notice. He sees the really fine details that make you a great player.”
The recent success of the program has also caused a growth in confidence among the players. The 2019 Regional title was the second in school history, and their Super Regional defeat came against eventual Division 4 champion Petersburg Summerfield, which gave the Cardinals an up-close and personal look at what an MHSAA championship team looks like.
“They looked like a college team,” Gill said. “They looked like a (Division II) college team.”
The success also makes the Cardinals believe that their lofty ranking is justified, and rather than ignoring it, they’re embracing it.
“It’s different, but we love it,” Rice said. “Our kids have a good confidence, but not an arrogance. I want the target. I want these kids to understand that all of us worked our butts off to get here. People say rankings don’t mean anything, but for me, I think they do. I think it’s helped build a little bit of confidence. The expectations are definitely different. It feels different, and I think it’s helped the boys say that, ‘Hey, we’re not this small school in Marine City that nobody knows.’”
Paul Costanzo served as a sportswriter at The Port Huron Times Herald from 2006-15, including three years as lead sportswriter, and prior to that as sports editor at the Hillsdale Daily News from 2005-06. He can be reached at [email protected] with story ideas for Genesee, Lapeer, St. Clair, Sanilac, Huron, Tuscola, Saginaw, Bay, Arenac, Midland and Gladwin counties.
PHOTOS: (Top) Marine City Cardinal Mooney pitcher Tommy Gill makes his move toward the plate during a game this spring. (Middle) Anthony DiGiuseppe gets his lead off second base during a 2019 game. (Below) The 2019 team celebrates its Regional championship. (Photos courtesy of the Cardinal Mooney baseball program.)
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.)