EAST LANSING – It looked like a mismatch. Madison Heights Bishop Foley, an annual powerhouse with plenty of pitching that had breezed through the tournament, against a sub-.500 team with little past tournament success.
It was anything but. Caro put a scare into the Ventures, but Bishop Foley held on for a 3-2 victory in a Division 3 Semifinal at Michigan State’s McLane Stadium on Friday.
Bishop Foley (24-12) will play top-ranked Traverse City St. Francis for the title at 2:30 p.m. Saturday.
St. Francis (38-3) advanced to its first Final thanks to some fine pitching and Cooper Peterson’s sacrifice fly in the eighth inning that pushed across the winning run in a 3-2 victory over Schoolcraft.
Bishop Foley, ranked No. 7 heading into this postseason and Division 3 champ from 2011-13, is a member of the highly competitive Detroit Catholic League, and the Ventures weren’t expected to be tested by a team that started 0-7 and had to adjust to a coaching change after the slow start.
Ethan Hoffman went the distance for the victory as he struck out 11 and surrendered two hits, one walk and one earned run.
The Ventures scored runs in the first, third and fifth innings off Deven Hodder. Although they didn’t have many hard-hit balls, the Ventures appeared to be in good shape going into the top of the sixth inning.
But Caro’s Dylan Brown led off with a triple and scored on Conner Langenburg’s sacrifice bunt. Langenburg reached base on an error and later scored on a failed pickoff attempt. The Tigers had the tying run on first when Steven Strachan III was hit by a pitch, but the inning ended on a failed stolen base attempt.
Hoffman then set the side down in order in the seventh inning, sending the Ventures to their fifth MHSAA Final.
“I came in and did my routine,” Hoffman said. “Everything was working. I established my fastball early. That sixth was pretty nerve-racking. That seventh showed I could come back from that.”
Bishop Foley made a couple of base-running miscues as well. Evan Finegan knocked in the Ventures’ first run with a single but Justin Campbell, who had drawn a walk one batter earlier, was picked off of second to end the inning.
A Campbell single scored Finegan for Bishop Foley’s third run in the fifth inning, but a pickoff ended that rally as well.
Second-year Bishop Foley coach Greg Fettes is happy to be in the Final, but he wasn’t pleased with the overall play of his team.
“I told my guys that the only team that’s going to beat us in this tournament is ourselves,” Fettes said. “You almost saw that in the sixth. We haven’t done that all year. We looked like a Little League team.”
Fettes wasn’t pleased with his players’ approach at the plate either. Bishop Foley had scored 36 runs over its last three games entering Friday.
“That’s what we do, swing, swing, swing,” he said. “Look at our playoff wins. I’ll have them ready to go (on Saturday).”
Caro (15-22) outplayed Bishop Foley defensively. Shortstop Mason Campbell made a leaping catch to rob Finegan of a hit to start the sixth and Strachan, the first baseman, made an over-the-shoulder catch going down the foul line to retire the next batter.
Caro coach Victor Gomez said it was a smooth transition for him when he took over the program. He was an assistant for two seasons and was familiar with the players.
“We just had to let the kids know we believed in them,” he said. “I watched them grow up. I saw they had the skill set.”
Traverse City St. Francis 3, Schoolcraft 2
Joe Muzljakovich pitched the first 6 2/3 innings for St. Francis and kept his team in the game by getting out of bases loaded situation in the fifth. He was removed with the bases loaded in the seventh, and Conner Sweet came on in relief and threw one pitch to get out of that jam.
Gabe Callery, the leadoff hitter, led off the eighth for St. Francis with a walk and ended up at third base after a failed pick-off and sacrifice. Junior Cooper Peterson came up to bad and did what coach Tom Passinault told him to do.
“He told me just to get a piece of the ball,” Peterson said. “He said get it to the outfield. I just kind of poked it. (Darren Kehoe) threw me a curve and I was a little out front.”
Ricky Clark batted in Schoolcraft’s first run in the first inning with a ground out that scored Nolan Anspaugh, who had tripled. Anspaugh also scored in the third on a sacrifice fly after reaching base on a double.
Blake Bales pitched well for No. 5 Schoolcraft (25-11), as he went 6 2/3 innings, allowed three hits and struck out eight.
Sweet picked up the victory for the Gladiators, allowing a walk and one base hit.
PHOTOS: (Top) Bishop Foley's Ethan Hoffman delivers a pitch during the first Division 3 Semifinal on Friday. (Middle) St. Francis' Artie Dutmers slides into home for one of his team's three runs.
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.)