MATTAWAN — As Mattawan’s Brady Neel stepped to the plate, the Kalamazoo Loy Norrix baseball coach called for a shift, expecting the batter to hit toward right field.
When Neel sent the ball into the gap between second and third, driving in a run with the hit, a voice in the crowd yelled, “Nice shift, coach.”
That incident during last year’s MHSAA Division 1 District still makes for some ribbing.
The Loy Norrix coach was Brian Neel, Brady’s father, and the voice heckling the coach was Neel’s wife, Lorri.
That situation will not arise this season.
After 20 years as Loy Norrix’s baseball coach, Brian Neel resigned so he can attend the games of his sons, sophomore Brady and 13-year-old Parker, a seventh grader at Mattawan Middle School.
“We knew with Brady playing at a different school (than Brian), that’s what had to happen,” Lorri Neel said. “Last year, Brian was blowing up my phone every game wanting to know what was going on.
“I am a little relieved Brian resigned his coaching position because family comes first.”
Brian Neel knew his son had a good chance to make the varsity team as a freshman, but didn’t know he would be a starter.
That made for some interesting table talk last year.
Both father and son had their first clash, a doubleheader, marked on the calendar.
“Right when I knew I was on varsity, I had the days counted out,” Brady said. “I DH’d that day, hitting fifth. I was kind of nervous at first.
“It was kind of a weird day. When I woke up that morning, we didn’t say a word to each other. It was awkward. I got to the field and just stayed calm and played another game of baseball.”
Said Brian Neel: “I don’t normally call pitches but his very first at bat I was just trying to strike him out. I kinda know where his weaknesses are.
“He doesn’t have a lot but I know where to pitch him. It didn’t work. After him, I just let the catcher call the pitches. It was weird.”
Said Brady: “I knew he just wanted to strike me out. I just wanted to get the job done and get that run in.”
He not only knocked in the run, but went 3 for 6 including a blast off the fence as Mattawan took both games, 15-0 on a no-hitter and 10-2 in the second, giving Brady family bragging rights.
The third meeting was at the District where Mattawan won 2-1, highlighted by the infamous “shift” strategy.
“Kind of weird how Brady (and the Wildcats) ended his dad’s coaching career,” said Mattawan baseball coach Cory DeGroote, who teaches physical education at the middle school.
Being a coach’s son is one thing that helped Brady’s baseball success, DeGroote said.
“I think there’s something about a coach’s kid,” said DeGroote, who has coached the Wildcats the past 12 years. “Your baseball IQ is higher than most.
“Brady’s an extreme competitor. He’s mentally tough; he’s physically just as big and strong as most of the kids on our team. He’s played at a high level for a long time. He just fits right in.”
Brian Neel, who teaches world history at Loy Norrix, said he didn’t expect it to sink in that he was no longer coaching until tryouts, but there is one perk.
“The winter was pretty busy usually,” the coach said. “On Sundays I was at (Loy Norrix) from 8 until 1 or 2 because there’s rules on how many kids you can have.
“So it’s been nice to sleep in on Sundays. I miss being there but I don’t miss getting up at 7 a.m. or when the day is crummy, contacting people about the schedule.”
Lorri Neel, who was an all-state softball player at Mattawan and is now a surgical nurse at Bronson Methodist Hospital, said her life should be a bit easier with her husband not coaching.
“It’s going to be easier as far as having a partner to transport, but I think it’s going to be a difficult year for Brady. If he doesn’t succeed, I’m afraid he’ll blame it on his dad being around.
“(Brian) and I never sit together, ever. I’m a crazy sport, competitive. He’ll ask me after the fact what I think and I’m like, ‘Well, you asked’ … I don’t hesitate to tell him.”
Neel taught physical education for 13 years before switching to history, and that had a huge impact on his son’s life.
“He grew up in the gym ever since he was able to walk,” Brian Neel said. “My players throughout my career have been outstanding to both my boys, like big brothers. He would go around shooting baskets, hitting off the tee.
“He played Little League until (age) 10, then played travel. We have a batting cage in our backyard and we have a net he can hit into, so he’s worked his tail off to get where he’s at.”
As this season gets underway, Brady, an outfielder who also catches, has his eye on one school record.
“I didn’t have any home runs (last year) but I hit a lot off the fence and had 12 doubles, three away from the school record, which is one of my goals, and I have three more years to do that,” he said.
Neel hit .313 last season, had 23 RBI and scored 14 runs.
“His numbers for a freshman were as good as we’ve ever had,” DeGroote said.
The Wildcats, who posted a 23-13-1 record last season, lost seven seniors to graduation.
They have just four seniors this year: Sam Miller, Mitchell Dundore, Kyle Woods and Nate DeBoer.
“We lost our Nos. 1 and 3 pitchers and have a bunch of kids who are going to fight for those spots,” DeGroote said.
Woods, Cam Doornweerd and Hunter Ashmus will pitch for the Wildcats and Miller, an infielder, will also log some innings on the mound.
DeGroote said this year’s players are committed to the weight room and morning workouts.
“As a coach, you get attached to groups,” he said. “If our preseason is any indication what our season is going to be, we’re going to be all right. It’s probably the best preseason workouts I’ve ever had.
“We’ve got tremendous leadership, extremely unselfish kids. To beat us, you’re going to have to compete for 21 outs because our kids are going to roll up their sleeves and come at you. I like that.”
As for the rivalry with Loy Norrix, father and son definitely disagree.
“We’re a pretty good hitting team, put the ball in play a lot,” Brady said. “We need to get better defensively.
“I think it will be the same (Mattawan wins) because I grew up going to (work out) at Norrix with all those guys. I have a lot of friends there, so there will still be a big rivalry. There are few kids on that team that are on the Maroons (travel team) with me.”
Said Brian Neel: “I personally think that Norrix is going to beat them this year. I want Brady to be successful in the game, but I’d probably like to see Norrix beat them.
“But then the (Loy Norrix) parents will probably say, ‘They got him out of there and now they’re winning games,’” he added, laughing.
Pam Shebest served as a sportswriter at the Kalamazoo Gazette from 1985-2009 after 11 years part-time with the Gazette while teaching French and English at White Pigeon High School. She can be reached at [email protected] with story ideas for Calhoun, Kalamazoo and Van Buren counties.
PHOTOS: (Top) Brady Neel and his father Brian share a laugh during a game in 2015. (Middle) Brian Neel, Lorri Neal, Brady Neel, Cody DeGroote. (Below) Brady Neel catches during a game last summer. (Top and middle photos courtesy of the Neel family.)
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.)