The sleepy village of Centreville was even quieter last June 13 when seemingly every resident trekked to East Lansing to watch the Bulldogs’ varsity baseball team take on Muskegon Catholic Central in the MHSAA Division 4 championship game.
“When we were at Michigan State last year, what’s funny is that, we’re in a small town, but the whole small town was at Michigan State,” Centreville coach Mike Webster said. “If you were in Centreville that day, the bank could have been robbed; the grocery store could have been robbed. We had the directors of the MHSAA come up to us and tell us we had the biggest crowd out of anybody — Division 1, 2, 3 or 4 schools.
“That lets you know that this town was waiting for something like that. The support is there and my phone has been off the hook since that day last year. I know we’ll have that fan support and school support. It makes it that much more fun.”
It was a historic run for the Bulldogs last spring, one that included a 29-2 record, a Berrien-Cass-St. Joseph East championship, the program’s first Regional crown and a spot in the penultimate game. The Bulldogs fell to MCC by a score of 10-8 to finish as Division 4 runner-up.
Now there’s only one goal: Win it all.
In order to meet that expectation, the preseason No. 2-ranked team in D4 will have to rely heavily on the right arm of senior pitcher Michael Kool, who had a remarkable 0.97 ERA in 2015. The recent Calvin College commit said, “I just got to trust my stuff like I did last year.”
That’s even easier to do with the gloves supporting him.
“I have to trust my defense behind me,” he added. “I wouldn’t have a below 1.00 ERA without the defensive players behind me.”
Helping Kool pick up the slack on the mound this season will be junior Coletin Gascho, who posted a very impressive 1.57 ERA as the team’s third pitcher in 2015. Senior Jake Milliman will provide depth on the mound for the Bulldogs, as will sophomore Andrew Stevens.
The Bulldogs’ offense, which posted a .312 team batting average and a .433 on-base percentage in 2015, brings back six of its top seven hitters from a year ago. Seniors Jalen Brown and Nick Kelley are among those returners looking to improve upon an offense that didn’t produce great power numbers last year but was still effective from top to bottom.
Brown, who went on a tear during the playoffs, finished 2015 with a .430 batting average.
Kelley, a rare strikeout victim in 2015, posted an eye-opening .560 on-base percentage during the regular season to go along with a strong .396 batting average. Kool also will look to provide some offense in 2016 just as he did in 2015, when he led the team in home runs (two).
“I think we’re all hungry to get back to the state championship and finish the job this time,” Kool said.
Centreville returns almost all of its key defenders to this year’s roster. Kelley, who along with Kool will make up one of the most successful and experienced batteries around the state, will anchor the defense from behind the plate.
Sophomore centerfielder Nick Webber is a major asset with a year of experience under his belt. Junior shortstop Brady Reynolds is just as invaluable.
“He’s (Reynolds) a very energetic kid, a very quick kid, and he’s a natural baseball player,” Brown said in describing why his teammate was the best defender on the Bulldogs’ roster.
This veteran group knows, however, this spring will be quite different being chased instead of being the pursuant.
“We have always had a very competitive conference,” Webster said. “With the returning players we will be having, we expect teams to not overlook us.”
“All last season, our little quote on the team was play every game like it’s a District championship game,” Kelley explained. “This year it’s going to be play every game like it’s a state title game.”
Wes Morgan has reported for the Kalamazoo Gazette, ESPN and ESPNChicago.com, 247Sports and Blue & Gold Illustrated over the last 12 years and is the publisher of JoeInsider.com. He can be reached at [email protected] with story ideas for Berrien, Cass, St. Joseph and Branch counties.
PHOTOS: (Top) Centreville's baseball team celebrates last season's Division 4 Semifinal win at Michigan State University. (Middle) Michael Kool unloads a pitch on the way to earning the 2-1 victory over Rudyard.
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.)