Second Half editor
EAST LANSING – Cody Huston was covered from neck to forearm in ice bags Friday afternoon after Decatur’s 2-1 Division 4 Semifinal win over Gladstone at McLane Stadium.
Eight innings of near-flawless pitching takes a toll – although the Raiders junior said he “could’ve gone as many as my team needed me to go.”
It’s tough to imagine Huston giving his teammates much more.
Not only did he allow just one hit in the longest start of his career, he also drove home the game-winning run in the bottom of the eighth inning after Gladstone elected to intentionally walk junior Matthew Botti before him.
“I was having a little off day with the hitting. Right time to do it, I guess,” Huston said. “I thought it was just my time to step up and help my team out. They had my back the whole game. It was my turn to step up and show them what it was all about.”
Decatur (24-6), long a Division 4 power but playing in Division 3 this season, will face Grosse Pointe Woods University Liggett at 5 p.m. Saturday in hopes of winning its fifth MHSAA title and second in three seasons.
Huston is part of seven-player junior class that’s played together since Little League. Five juniors started Friday, along with two sophomores and two seniors.
Junior first baseman Joby Kawaski doubled home junior second baseman Carter Smith in the fifth inning for the game’s first run. And with Huston dominating, it looked like that would be enough.
But Gladstone didn’t need a hit to knot the score in the seventh inning – just some smart base running a hard-hit grounder.
With his team down to its final two outs, senior centerfielder Christian Groleau walked, stole second base and advanced to third on an error. Senior pitcher Sam Pouliot – himself throwing a gem – hit a sharp ground ball that glanced off Huston’s glove and took just enough time rolling toward the second baseman that Groleau made it home without drawing a throw.
The score stood 1-1 when Smith singled to open the bottom of the eighth inning and moved to second on a Kawaski bunt. After a groundout came Botti’s walk – he had singled in his previous at bat – and Huston came to the plate.
“Cody’s been swinging the bat really well. (But) Matthew has been swinging the bat really well, and I probably would’ve walked him too,” said Decatur coach Ben Botti, also Matthew’s father. “I had all the confidence in Cody. I said get something on the (grass), and Carter is going to score. I just knew he was going to be able to get the job done.”
Pouliot also threw a complete game, striking out nine and giving up only one earned run. Despite the loss, it was an impressive end for a Braves program that was restarted in 2013 after being discontinued in 1960. Gladstone finished its first Semifinal run 29-5, and should be primed for another graduating only a handful of key contributors.
Next season looked like it would be the big one for the Raiders. But like Huston’s big hit, it appears his team arrived in East Lansing not a year early, but right on time.
“They’ve been playing together for a long time. We started them with travel ball when they were little, and there’s not a kid on there who we didn’t coach in Little League and coming up,” Ben Botti said. “We’ve just played from the time they were that big. Are we here a year early? I don’t know, maybe. But we might be better next year.”
Grosse Pointe Woods University Liggett 7, Reese 1
Matthew Gushee started this season as University Liggett’s number three starting pitcher, and didn’t throw much during the first weeks when the weather was still wintery.
But the sophomore showed enough as the season went on to move up to second in the Knights’ rotation – and plant himself on the mound for Friday’s Semifinal against Reese.
Gushee improved to 4-1 this spring by giving up only four hits and a walk in getting the reigning Division 4 champion back into an MHSAA Final – this time in Division 3.
“He has the best stuff probably of anyone we have, with the cutter, change and curve, and he pounds the zone,” Liggett coach Dan Cimini said. “He’s got a good grip. He’s got a good mental attitude. He plans well. He prepares well. And he wants the ball in the big game.”
The Knights gave Gushee a quick cushion, scoring two runs in the first inning, one in the second and three more in the third. Senior outfielders Ian Clark and Adam Fiema both had two hits, with Clark scoring twice and Fiema driving in two runs. Senior first baseman Anthony Simon also scored twice and drove in a run.
Reese senior Cody Peyok allowed only one earned run after taking the mound in relief during the third inning – but by then the damage was done.
This wasn’t Gushee’s first stunning performance. He also got the win in the Regional Final against top-ranked Madison Heights Bishop Foley, the three-time reigning Division 3 champ.
“He’s been a horse for us,” Cimini said, “and I’m glad we have him.”
PHOTOS: (Top) Decatur players celebrate after Carter Smith scores the winning run in their Semifinal. (Middle) Matthew Gushee fires a pitch while throwing a four-hitter for Grosse Pointe Woods University Liggett.
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.)