By Wes Morgan
Special for Second Half
All the pieces are in place for the Sturgis varsity baseball team to potentially still be playing in June.
As of Wednesday’s Michigan High School Baseball Coaches Association poll, the Trojans fit in at No. 19 in Division 2, though the rankings are somewhat arbitrary as some teams on the list had played as few as four games.
But after a 19-14 season in 2017 — without a single senior on the squad — Sturgis fourth-year head coach Drew Rutenbar knew the program had an opportunity to do something special this spring.
With 11 seniors this year and a five-man junior class that made a significant impact last season, the Trojans are gunning to win a Wolverine Conference championship after finishing third in the league in 2017, which was followed by a disappointing Pre-District ouster by St. Joseph County rival Three Rivers.
“First goal on our minds right now is the Wolverine Conference,” Rutenbar said. “In my time as a coach, that’s the piece that’s missing and this group is ready to make that happen. This is a group of guys that I have heard about since they entered middle school. Last year’s season came to an abrupt stop, and we didn’t take care of what we wanted to do. These guys are all in.”
The seniors are Dalton Smith, Sam Leck, Korbin Whitcomb, Jacob Morales, Jake Abbs, Avery Cleveland, Brian Jordan, Brecken Stewart, James Campbell, Tyler Lovelace and Anthony Harper. Juniors Isaac Harper, Zach Chapman, Drew Murphy, Parker Stephens and Braydon Bathgate round out the talented roster.
At 15-2 overall and 9-1 in league play (tied with Edwardsburg atop the standings), the Trojans have upped their offensive production from last spring and outscored opponents 100-55. Seven players are hitting above .300, and not a single pitcher in the rotation has allowed more than six earned runs. Defense always has been a strength, but Sturgis adds more speed and power with this year’s lineup.
Murphy is 3-0 on the bump with a 3.51 ERA, Leck is 3-1 operating with a 1.47 ERA, Jordan and Harper are both 2-0 and Stewart, Abbs, Lovelace and Campbell all have won games, helping to preserve arms for the final stretch.
Abbs leads the team with 22 hits to go along with 13 RBI, 11 stolen bases and 16 runs scored. Murphy is hitting .396 with 19 hits and 12 RBI, Whitcomb is hitting at a .395 clip and boasts 17 hits, a pair of home runs and 12 RBI; and Stevens, who has appeared in 12 games, is hitting .452 with 14 hits and 10 RBI.
Cleveland, Morales, Leck and Bathgate all are hitting higher than .300, Stewart is pacing the squad with 17 RBI, and Whitcomb and Leck have eight steals apiece.
“We’ve been in a handful of character-building games that we had to battle back or make last at-bat comebacks,” Rutenbar explained. “Our four go-to conference pitchers have come in and taken care of business. And a big help to our success this season is being so deep with guys who can throw.
“As coaches, it’s our job to find how each team works best. This group is laid back, goofy and plays best when playing relaxed. If our dugout was quiet and we were putting pressure on them because a game might be important, they don’t play their best.”
Beyond experience, talent and atmosphere, there are sometimes other intangible factors that can take a team to the next level. Whitcomb’s expedient rehabilitation after a torn anterior cruciate ligament early in the football season has been priceless. Originally told he would not be healthy in time for his final year of baseball, Whitcomb beat those odds and has been a driving force for the Trojans both in his play and his guidance.
“It was a long five or six months,” Whitcomb said. “It was rough. I got back into weight training 2-3 months after (surgery). I’ve been working on my hitting, and I learned a couple new pitches in the offseason. We had a lot of potential last year and we had a decent season, but we could have done a lot better. That’s been our motivation for this year.”
That and simply not taking the ability to compete for granted, which Whitcomb clearly understands. The mild-mannered student-athlete has stepped up this spring to vocally ensure everyone else is on the same page.
“With 11 seniors it has been interesting to see who will really step up and lead,” Rutenbar said. “Korbin has been that guy so far for us. I think he’s just happy to be able to play baseball this season, and he’s doing everything he can to make sure they live up to their full potential.”
Wes Morgan has reported for the Kalamazoo Gazette, ESPN and ESPNChicago.com, 247Sports and Blue & Gold Illustrated over the last 12 years and is the publisher of JoeInsider.com. He can be reached at [email protected] with story ideas for Berrien, Cass, St. Joseph and Branch counties.
PHOTOS: (Top) Sturgis teammates congratulate Korbin Whitcomb as he heads back to the dugout during a game against Marshall on March 26 at Notre Dame University. (Middle) The Trojans enjoy a lighter moment during that doubleheader. (Photos courtesy of JoeInsider.com.)
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.)