EAST LANSING – Traverse City Francis relied primarily on a two-headed monster to get it to the Division 3 Semifinals this season.
But once there, another formidable force emerged for the Gladiators.
The dynamic duo all season has been junior ace Charlie Peterson and senior catcher Aidan Schmuckal, and those two delivered again for St. Francis in a 5-4 win over Richmond at McLane Stadium.
Schmuckal went 2-for-3 with two RBI, while Peterson allowed one run in 4 1/3 innings pitched despite laboring at the end and being taken out in the fifth after throwing 109 pitches.
But that’s where the third hero of the day entered for St. Francis.
Senior Jack Hitchens entered for Peterson in the fifth and settled the game down, tossing 2 2/3 innings of scoreless to relief to help lock down the game for the Gladiators.
Hitchens allowed just one hit.
“Just hitting your spots and throwing strikes,” Hitchens said of what made his outing effective. “Hit the outside corner, and it’s really hard for high school athletes to hit that.”
St. Francis advanced to the Final for the first time since 2017, when it finished runner-up to Madison Heights Bishop Foley.
The Gladiators (28-9) won Thursday despite committing five errors.
“We made uncharacteristic errors, but the kids just battled,” head coach Tom Passinault said. “Charlie’s pitch count went a lot higher and quicker than we thought. Jack Hitchens just did a tremendous job against a really good team.”
Richmond (30-6) likely will lament missed opportunities, as the Blue Devils left 10 runners on base and couldn’t score with the bases loaded and nobody out in the fourth inning.
“All year long, we were able to get that key hit,” Richmond head coach Scott Evans said. “Whether it was pressure or heat, we couldn’t. Give their guys credit.”
St. Francis opened the scoring in the first when Cody Richards hit an RBI single to score Schmuckal, who had reached on a walk and took second on a sacrifice bunt.
St. Francis added two more runs in the second inning, loading the bases and then taking a 3-0 lead on an opposite-field two-run double down the right field line by Schmuckal.
Hitchens then made it 4-0 St. Francis on an RBI groundout to second base.
Richmond answered in the third inning, taking advantage of a two-out error by St. Francis and cutting its deficit to 4-1 on an RBI single by Hudson Davenport.
Richmond had its golden opportunity in the fourth inning when it loaded the bases with nobody out, but Peterson struck out Richmond’s first three hitters in the lineup to get out of the jam.
The Blue Devils did strike in the fifth inning, scoring three runs to tie the game at 4-4. The big blow was a two-run double to the wall in left-center by Jackson Jones.
St. Francis responded in its half of the fifth, taking a 5-4 lead on a single by Josh Groves.
“They just don’t know when to be nervous,” Passinault said of his team. “They just play even-keel.”
Grosse Pointe Woods University Liggett 2, Buchanan 0
The final Semifinal of the day was the quickest, mainly because it was a terrific pitchers duel between Liggett junior Kurt Barr and Buchanan junior Matt Hoover.
Barr was just a bit better, tossing a two-hit shutout to lead Liggett to a 2-0 victory over Buchanan and its second-straight trip to the Division 3 Final.
“I’ve been going with my slider all season, but today my curveball was going in the pen,” Barr said. “From the second inning on, I only threw the curveball and ditched the slider. The slider has been the pitch I’ve been rolling with all season.”
Liggett, which lost to Homer in the 2019 championship game, will play Traverse City St. Francis.
“Everything clicked,” Liggett head coach Dan Cimini said. “When you get this far, you know you are going to run into pitching like that, and you have to be able to combat that. You combine that by having great pitching with it and great defense.”
Liggett (30-5) scored the only two runs of the game in the top of the first inning, the first coming on an RBI single by Matt Greene.
The next came courtesy of Ryan Jones, who doubled down the right field line to make it 2-0 Liggett.
That was more than enough support for Barr, who struck out nine and walked just one.
Barr did run into a bit of trouble in the fourth inning, when Buchanan put runners on second and third with two outs.
But Barr induced a groundout to end the threat.
Hoover was stellar as well, tossing a three-hitter, striking out five and walking five.
Sophomore Jarren Purify reached base three times and scored a run to lead Liggett offensively.
Buchanan finished its season 34-3.
“I’m proud of the way the boys competed,” Buchanan head coach Jim Brawley said. “This is a working group. … These kids came to work every day, and I’m proud of them for that.”
PHOTOS: (Top) Traverse City St. Francis’ Cody Richards takes the throw at first as Richmond’s Hudson Davenport speeds down the line. (Middle) University Liggett’s Kurt Barr makes his move toward 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."
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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.)