By Geoff Kimmerly
Second Half editor
EAST LANSING – Beal City baseball went viral this week, thanks to a trick play that played a small part in its Regional Final win over top-ranked Muskegon Catholic Central last weekend.
But the Aggies showed again Friday morning that they are nothing if not opportunistic – and fun to watch.
Fakery wasn’t necessary like the hidden-ball trick against MCC that has been viewed more than 300,000 times on YouTube and made national headlines with coach Brad Antcliff and two of his players interviewed on Fox News.
But Beal City had a run before it had a hit against Kalamazoo Christian, stole six bases and took advantage of five errors and getting hit by three pitches on the way to an 11-1, six-inning Division 4 Semifinal win at McLane Baseball Stadium.
“We like to stay aggressive on the base paths and in the batter’s box. We’ve been talking about that all year,” said sophomore shortstop Tucker Gross, who scored two runs and stole three bases. “It’s a lot of fun, being aggressive, not holding back. We’re just being ourselves and having fun.
“The stakes are higher, but we stay true to who we are and play our kind of ball.”
Beal City (36-3), ranked No. 2 entering the tournament, will play Saturday against No. 5 New Lothrop for its first MHSAA title since 2010. The Aggies were runners-up a year ago to Grosse Pointe Woods University Liggett, a semifinalist in Division 3 this weekend.
Aggies pitcher Ty Rollin did use an ounce of trickery to end Kalamazoo Christian’s opening rally, faking a pick-off attempt to third base in the first inning and wheeling toward first base before catching a runner trying to advance to second. He got that out and struck out the next batter, and it was all Beal City until the Comets scored their lone run in the sixth inning.
The Aggies scored one run in each of the first three innings before adding six in the fourth. In addition to eight hits, they executed a squeeze for one run, plus a double steal and some hit-and-run to move around the bases and earn a comfortable advantage that allowed Antcliff the luxury of pulling his ace after the fourth inning so he can use him again in the championship game.
Only three of Beal City’s runs were earned.
“We’re going to make the other team make plays. The kids played great baseball; they did exactly what we wanted them to do today,” Antcliff said. “We were going to score as quickly as possible and as many as possible, because I’ve got Ty for six (innings Saturday).
Rollin, who threw all eight innings in last season’s one-run Final loss to Liggett, allowed only two hits in four innings Thursday and also scored twice. Reliever Kurt Gross finished the game and knocked in two runs in his only at bat. Senior Ryan Tilmann had two hits and scored three runs.
Junior rightfielder Greg Harris drove in the lone run for Kalamazoo Christian (18-18).
It probably won’t make national news if Beal City finishes this run with the Division 4 title Saturday. But that certainly will be the most memorable moment for the team and community, even if the recent national hype was a fun highlight along the way.
“It’s cool, but the main thing is we’ve gotta stay focused,” Gross said. “We can’t let it get into our heads. We can’t let it become a distraction. We can talk about it a little bit, but that’s all.”
New Lothrop 3, Maple City Glen Lake 1
Both teams playing in the second Division 4 Semifinal were in a similar history-making position – New Lothrop was playing for its first championship game berth ever, and Glen Lake was playing for its first in forever (1984).
The Hornets have had a lot of success in athletics in 2013-14, and maybe some of that savvy rubbed off on sophomore pitcher Cameron Pope. He struck out 11 and gave up only six hits before yielding to junior reliever Grant Steinborn with one out in the seventh inning.
New Lothrop has risen from Quarterfinalist in 2012 to Semifinalist last season, and now has its firt opportunity to climb the last rung on the historical ladder.
“It’s the chemistry. It’s a small school. Everybody has classes with each other. We just all get along and we love playing with each other,” Pope said of why this year’s team became the first baseball finalist.
“It’s tradition. New Lothrop’s a winning school. It’s just what we do.”
Sophomore rightfielder Quentin Taylor scored two of New Lothrop’s runs and drove in the third. He was the only hitter with more than one for the Hornets, who had only six hits total to Glen Lake’s 11.
The Lakers had one last opportunity in the seventh inning. With runners on first and second bases, two drives down the leftfield line fell foul, one by mere inches. One runner would've scored, and the second would've had a shot at tying the game as well. But Steinborn was able to pick up the final two outs without incident.
Senior shortstop Tristan Williams had three hits for Glen Lake and scored the lone run. Senior Thomas Waning was steady on the mound, giving up only the three hits and striking out five.
“There’s nothing we did or didn’t do in terms of mistakes or anything like that. At the end they got two big hits when they needed to get two big hits, and we didn’t get those hits when we needed to have them,” Glen Lake coach Kris Herman said.
“We felt like we had a real opportunity to do good things here, and we’re very disappointed. We said we’d celebrate when the season was over, and we will, but now is not going to be the time because we felt an opportunity got away from us.”
PHOTO: (Top) Beal City’s Carson Salisbury scores as part of a six-run rally in the fourth inning Friday. (Middle) Cameron Pope unloads a pitch in earning the win for New Lothrop.
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.)