D3 Finalists End Long Waits to Return

By Tom Markowski
Special for Second Half

June 12, 2015

EAST LANSING – Except for a couple of hiccups, Jackson Lumen Christi coach Phil Clifford’s game plan could hardly have worked better Friday.

And now Clifford has his rotation all set for the MHSAA Final.

Pitching on two day’s rest, Zach Mehelich went four innings and gave up two runs as Lumen Christi defeated Elkton-Pigeon-Bay Port Laker 7-3 in a Division 3 Semifinal at McLane Stadium on the campus of Michigan State University.

Chris Cooper’s triple produced the game’s first run, and he scored on Connor Mogle’s single to give the Titans a 2-0 lead in the bottom of the second inning. Cooper’s drive to right fooled the outfielder as he came in a few steps before retreating, but the ball went over his head.

“I just go up there and swing the bat,” Cooper said. “I go up there to hit, not take pitches.

“I saw (the outfielder) charge it a little bit. I just kept on running, hoping I wouldn’t catch Joe (Mehelich).”

Lumen Christi (23-16), winners of seven straight, will play Buchanan (24-7) for the title at 2:30 p.m. Saturday.

The Titans added another run in the third inning and broke open the game with a four-run fourth.

“Zach threw 130 pitches and went 10 innings on Tuesday,” Clifford said. “We wanted to get some innings out of him today. We wanted four, and we got four.”

Saturday’s will be the Titans’ second MHSAA Final appearance. They won the 1978 Class B title with a 10-6 victory over Spring Lake.

Clifford’s plan is to use Mehelich, 10-2 now after earning the victory, in relief if needed. Clifford might go with Josh Iocca, who threw the final three innings to get the save Friday, or go with Josh Fleming, who started at catcher.

“It’s the Final,” Clifford said. “Anyone who can pitch is available.”

Normally a strong team defensively, Lumen Christi committed three errors. The first two didn’t play into the scoring, but the third one did.

Trailing 3-0, the Lakers (22-11) broke through with a run on Austin McCabe’s RBI double. McCabe then scored on an infield error to make it 3-2 going into the bottom of the fourth.

Lumen Christi’s defense saved at least one run during the previous inning. With one out, Jacob Periso reached base on an infield error and went to third on Brady Post’s single. Dustin Kady then hit a fly to fairly deep right field, where Zach Spicer made the catch and threw one hop to Fleming, who put the tag on Periso to end the inning.

“I thought I’d be late on the bounce,” Spicer said. “It was pretty cool. It was great for our confidence.”

Despite the loss, this was the Lakers’ best season. They had never won a Regional before this spring.

Laker coach Adam Grybauskas said Spicer’s throw was perhaps the key play of the game.

“The throw from the outfield was a perfect throw,” Grybauskas said. “A foot here or a foot there and he’s safe.”

Click for the box score.

Buchanan 6, Gladstone 4

Buchanan trailed Gladstone 3-0 after two innings before Kyle Leazenby relieved Jarrett Thomas and held the Braves to a run on five hits.

The Bucks haven’t been to a Final since 1985, when they defeated Grandville Calvin Christian, 3-2, for the Class C title. Buchanan also lost in the 1981 and 1982 Class C Finals. 

Buchanan scored two in the third inning Friday and took its first lead, 5-4, in the bottom of the fifth scoring three runs, two unearned.

Thomas had the big hit in the inning, a two-run double that tied the game at 4-4. Thomas stole second and came home on Chad Adkerson’s sacrifice fly.

“I never found myself on the mound,” Thomas said. “I had to keep focusing. I had to do something else to help the team. With two men on, I had to do the job.”

Thomas moved to shortstop after being relieved. He threw 145 pitches during Saturday’s Regional and seemed tired. He walked five and threw 63 pitches Friday.

Leazenby, a sophomore, set the side down in order in the third and seventh innings, and did not walk a batter. 

He had worked four innings in Tuesday’s 7-4 Quarterfinal victory over Lansing Catholic.

“I feel I had a lot more left after Tuesday,” Leazenby said. “I was very pumped up. It’s a lot different than Tuesday.” 

Jake Peterson went the distance on the mound for Gladstone (28-10). He also had three hits and two RBI.

Gladstone is expected to field another fine team next season as coach Don Lauscher had just two seniors and two juniors this spring.

Click for the box score. 

PHOTOS: (Top) A Lumen Christi hitter turns on a pitch during Friday’s Division 3 Semifinal. (Middle) Buchanan's Kyle Leazenby prepares to fire during his relief appearance Friday.

Vast Experience Shapes Retired MLB-er Gates Into 3-Time Finals-Winning Coach

By Steve Vedder
Special for MHSAA.com

August 1, 2023

If there is anything that Brent Gates knows for sure, it's that there is no single explanation for three MHSAA Finals baseball championships.

Made in Michigan is powered by Michigan Army National Guard.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.

Gates makes a tag at second base while playing for the national team.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.

Gates presents the championship trophy this season to his Grand Rapids Christian players."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."

2023 Made In Michigan

July 25: After All-American Career, Rockford's Bennett Making Impact as Mat Mentor - Read
July 20: 
Oakridge 3-Sport Star Potts Applying Lessons to 'Second Chapter' in Sales - Read
July 18:
Frankfort Hoops Staff Bolstered by Past Stars Giving Back in Banktson, Kreski - Read
July 12:
Championship Memories, High School Tennis' Impact Stick with Hackett Pair - Read
July 6: 
Brother Rice Finals Hero Aiming to Ace Family Life, Financial World - Read
July 5:
Lapeer West 4-Time Finals Winner Set to Build Champions at Oklahoma - Read

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.)