By Geoff Kimmerly
Second Half editor
BATTLE CREEK – When Warren DeLaSalle began this season 3-14-1, coach Matt Cook had little choice but to simply look ahead to the next practice, the next game.
But he promised the Pilots if they stayed the course, the tough times wouldn’t last forever.
Kevin Carroll and his classmates made sure of it.
DeLaSalle is 17-8 since, and will play for its fourth MHSAA championship Saturday thanks to a 3-2 win over Howell in Friday’s Semifinal.
“No one’s going to stop this team right now. We’re playing better than we ever have,” said Carroll, who gave up five hits and struck out six in getting the pitching win. “Everyone’s here to play. Everyone’s here to win. There’s not one person who doubts it.
“I don’t know what the turning point was or where it was, but I think that definitely it was because of the seniors. The seniors decided we were done losing. We didn’t like it.”
DeLaSalle (20-22-1) faces No. 6 Hudsonville at 12:30 p.m. Saturday for the title. Data isn’t readily available to confirm the Pilots could become the first team to win an MHSAA championship with a losing record.
But it’s fair to believe this run is bordering on unprecedented.
“These guys did a heck of a job putting it together and doing things the right thing,” said Cook, who as a player caught for the Grand Ledge team that fell in the 2001 Division1 Final to Grosse Pointe South. “I kept telling them to play their game. You play baseball the right way, it’s going to turn around.”
The Pilots scored one run apiece in the tops of the fourth, fifth and sixth innings. Howell came back with a run in bottoms of the fifth and sixth. But sophomore second baseman Dominic DiPuma’s home run in the top of the sixth ended up being the game-winner when the Highlanders (30-11) failed to scratch one more across.
“We’ve battled through. That’s been our thing all year; our kids have never given up,” Howell co-coach Jason Ladd said. “We were down 7-1 in the Regional, battled back and won. And I think these kids expected we were going to win this one.”
Senior outfielder Reed Carnagie had two hits and an RBI for the Pilots. Senior Josh Vyletel fell to 15-3 on the mound despite tossing a complete game and striking out four for Howell. Click for a full box score.
Hudsonville 4, Saline 3
Hudsonville earned its first championship game berth with a two-run rally in the fourth inning and shutdown pitching by senior Blake Hibbitts and sophomore Logan Magsig. Saline had just one more hit after opening up a 3-0 lead.
Magsig, playing shortstop before he moved to the mound, also drove in the first run of the go-ahead rally before scoring what became the winning run later in the fourth inning.
Senior first baseman Hunter Prince also had two hits for No. 6 Hudsonville (32-5). Junior second baseman Andrew White, sophomore rightfielder Michael Hendrickson and senior catcher Patrick Price all had a double and an RBI for No. 9 Saline, which finished 30-11. Click for a full box score.
PHOTOS: (Top) Warren DeLaSalle players celebrate sophomore Dominic DiPuma's home run that proved to be the game winner against Howell. (Middle) Hudsonville senior Hunter Prince connects during his team's Semifinal against Saline.
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.)