By Geoff Kimmerly
Second Half editor
A few numbers are worth noting heading into MHSAA Baseball Finals weekend at Battle Creek's Bailey Park.
Seven of the 16 teams taking the field will be playing for their first championships. Not one of the Division 2 Semifinalists has a top-10 number attached to it; all four contenders entered the postseason unranked.
But there are plenty of coaches this weekend who know about winning; eight have led teams to at least 200 wins, and two coaches with at least 500 victories are attempting to guide their clubs to first MHSAA titles.
Below is this weekend's schedule, followed by a look at each team that will be playing.
Semifinals - Friday
Bay City Western (40-2) vs. Sterling Heights Stevenson (28-8) - CO Brown - 11 a.m.
Birmingham Brother Rice (31-8-1) vs. Howell (33-7) - Nichols Field - 10 a.m.
Grand Rapids Christian (17-15) vs. Remus Chippewa Hills (27-7) - Nichols Field - 1 p.m.
Richmond (33-4) vs. Milan (26-12) - Morrison Field - Noon
Grandville Calvin Christian (23-3) vs. Whittemore-Prescott (24-5) - Morrison Field - 3 p.m.
Madison Heights Bishop Foley (33-2-1) vs. Bridgman (26-5-1) - CO Brown - 2 p.m.
Beal City (34-2) vs. Maple City Glen Lake (28-7) - CO Brown - 5 p.m.
New Lothrop (25-5) vs. Grosse Pte. Woods U. Liggett (29-4) - Nichols Field - 4 p.m.
Finals - Saturday
Division 1: 9:30 a.m.
Division 2: 12:30 p.m.
Division 3: 3:30 p.m.
Division 4: 6:30 p.m.
Tickets cost $7 per round or $15 for an all-tournament ticket that includes admission to baseball games. Radio broadcasts of all Semifinals can be heard online at MHSAAnetwork.com. All Finals will be streamed live online at MHSAA.tv, with radio broadcasts again available on the MHSAA Network website.
All statistics below are through at least the regular season, with most through teams' Regionals or Quarterfinals. (Click for links to brackets and scores.)
BAY CITY WESTERN
Record/rank: 40-2, No. 1
Coach: Tim McDonald, 21st season (562-198-7)
League finish: First in Saginaw Valley League North
Championship history: Has never played in an MHSAA Final.
Players to watch: Connor Foley, sr. P/3B (7-0, 1.73 ERA pitching, .496, 57 R, 19 SB); Grant Miller, sr. 2B (.478, 52 R, 32 RBI); Grant Bridgewater, sr. C/3B (.416, 39 R, 38 RBI), Brett Adcock, sr. P/1B (11-0, 0.54 ERA, 119 K pitching, .361).
Outlook: The Warriors are making their third Semifinals appearance in eight seasons, this time with a lineup featuring seven seniors. Bay City Western has won 31 straight, including victories over No. 2 Brighton, No. 5 Howell and sweeps of Division 2 No. 1 Bay City John Glenn, No. 4 Mount Pleasant and No. 6 Bullock Creek. Seniors Briton Ott (7-0) and Grant Rosenbrock (6-1) also have ERAs under 1.50, and junior shortstop Seth Freed provides another big bat hitting .443.
BIRMINGHAM BROTHER RICE
Record/rank: 31-8-1, No. 6
Coach: Bob Riker, 16th season (393-156)
League finish: First in Detroit Catholic High School League Central
Championship history: Three MHSAA titles (most recent 2008), two runner-up finishes.
Players to watch: Dalton Greyerbiehl, sr. CF/P; Nick Plummer, soph. LF; Matt Ruppenthal, jr. IF/P; Randy Righter, jr. 1B/P; Sammy Stevens, jr. C. (Statistics not submitted.)
Outlook: This is Brother Rice’s first trip to Bailey Park since its most recent championship run, but the Warriors are used to seeing tough competition playing in one of the state’s most competitive leagues. Brother Rice also owns a split against No. 5 Howell and a sweep of Division 3 No. 1 Madison Heights Bishop Foley, and beat No. 11 Lake Orion in Tuesday’s Quarterfinal.
Record/rank: 33-7, No. 5
Co-coaches: Jason Ladd and Mike Weatherly, second seasons (62-17)
League finish: Second in Kensington Lakes Activities Association West
Championship history: Has never appeared in an MHSAA Final.
Players to watch: Tyler Bradner, sr. P/CF (.416, 28 R, 51 RBI); Cody Wiggins, sr. LF (.362, 32 R, 28 RBI); Darren Ford, jr. RF/P (.404, 32 R, 23 RBI).
Outlook: Howell is back in the Semifinals for the second straight year, and also the second time ever. And the Highlanders should be prepared after running through a loaded schedule; they went 2-1 against No. 2 Brighton and No. 4 Sterling Heights Stevenson, fell to No. 1 Bay City Western but beat reigning Division 4 champion Decatur, and then defeated No. 8 Temperance Bedford in Tuesday’s Quarterfinal.
STERLING HEIGHTS STEVENSON
Record/rank: 28-8, No. 4
Coach: Joe Emanuele, 16th season (351-182)
League finish: First in Macomb Area Conference Red
Championship history: Division 1 champion 2005.
Players to watch: Zack McGuire, jr. P/OF (5-0, 1.22 ERA pitching, .444, 16 2B, 42 RBI); Brandon Hughes, jr. OF/P (.404, 39 R, 21 SB); Dean Emanuele, jr. 2B (.388, 14 SB, 26 R), Bobby Griffin, sr. C (.370, 12 2B, 20 RBI).
Outlook: After missing last season, Stevenson is back in the Semifinals for the second time in three years with a lineup featuring as many seniors (three) as sophomores. Stevenson owns a recent win over No. 5 Howell after two losses earlier, and beat No. 7 Macomb Dakota three times including in the Regional. Senior Johno Rodriguez (7-1) and junior Joe Wolf (6-2) combine with McGuire for an accomplished pitching staff.
GRAND RAPIDS CHRISTIAN
Record/rank: 17-15, unranked
Coach: Brent Gates, sixth season (153-59)
League finish: Third in Ottawa-Kent Conference White
Championship history: Division 2 champion 2012, runner-up 2011 and 2005.
Players to watch: Alex VandeVusse, sr. 1B/P (.392, 22 R, 3-3 pitching); Joel Schipper, sr. SS (.384, 20 R, 19 RBI); Tyler Sigler, jr. OF (.356, 23 R, 17 SB); Austin Batka, jr. P/1B (4-5, 1.63 ERA, 88 K pitching).
Outlook: VandeVusse and Schipper were key cogs in last season’s championship team and have the Eagles back on an unexpected run after finishing the regular season 12-15. The Eagles did beat No. 2 Comstock Park 10-3 in the Regional Semifinal and also beat No. 4 Mount Pleasant just before the beginning of Districts.
Record/rank: 26-12, unranked
Coach: Adam Gilles, 12th season (266-122-3)
League finish: Third in Huron League
Championship history: Has never played in an MHSAA Final.
Players to watch: Kyle Schrader, jr. P/IF; Thomas Lindeman, soph. P/SS. (Statistics not submitted.)
Outlook: Milan has won 10 straight and is back at Bailey Park for the first time since 2009. This postseason run has included three shutouts – including one against No. 10 New Boston Huron – as the Big Reds have beaten those six teams by a combined score of 18-5.
REMUS CHIPPEWA HILLS
Record/rank: 27-7, unranked
Coach: Ben Wright, seventh season (182-64)
League finish: First in Central State Activities Association
Championship history: Class B champion 1983.
Players to watch: Jake Tarbell, sr. C/P (10-2, 2.07 ERA, 94 K pitching, .505, 31 R, 17 2B, 40 RBI); Devin Esch, sr. CF (.423, 26 R, 12 SB); Hunter Conley, soph. 2B (.403, 38 R, 27 SB); Ty Schafer, sr. SS/P (8-2, 2.62 ERA, 54 K pitching, .369, 25 R, 23 RBI.)
Outlook: Chippewa Hills has won six straight league, three straight District and two straight Regional championships. The Warriors were ranked No. 10 in Division 2 early this season, and have beaten two straight ranked opponents: No. 8 Cheboygan in the Regional Final and No. 4 Mount Pleasant in the Quarterfinal.
Record/rank: 33-4, unranked
Coach: Scott Evans, second season (58-16)
League finish: First in Blue Water Area Conference
Championship history: Has never played in an MHSAA Final.
Players to watch: Evan Kratt, soph. C/P (3-0, 1.58 ERA pitching, .478, 36 R, 38 RBI, 13 2B); Austin Harvey, jr. 3B (.439, 32 R, 16 SB); Ryan Boyd, jr. SS/P (2-0, 0.49 ERA pitching, .421, 39 R, 18 SB); Mitchell Ward, sr. P/1B (5-0, 1.54 ERA pitching, .408, 27 R, 26 RBI).
Outlook: Richmond is riding a 17-game winning streak that has included a 6-1 win over No. 3 St. Clair in the Regional Semifinal. The Blue Devils have one of the deepest pitching staffs in Battle Creek this weekend, with seven throwers having won at least one game this season and the total staff ERA at 1.75. Junior Zach Leach and sophomore Dillon McInerney both have a team-high six wins on the mound.
Record/rank: 26-5-1, No. 7
Coach: Justin Hahaj, first season (26-5-1)
League finish: First in Lakeland Conference
Championship history: Class D champion 1987, two runner-up finishes.
Players to watch: Brock Belanger, sr. 1B (.430, 27 R, 37 RBI); Matt Hendricks, jr. SS (.337, 37 R, 22 SB); Tyler Gnodtke, jr. P/OF (7-1, 1.86 ERA pitching); Brady Wasko, sr. P/2B (9-1, 0.49 ERA, 74 K pitching, .328, 26 R).
Outlook: Bridgman hopes to take the next step after finishing runner-up in 2011. Gnodtke made a brief appearance in that Final and is back as one of the best of a strong pitching staff. Bridgman has won its five postseason games by a combined score of 34-4, with a 5-2 win over No. 6 Homer in Tuesday’s Quarterfinal.
GRANDVILLE CALVIN CHRISTIAN
Record/rank: 23-3, unranked
Coach: Andrew Bishop, fourth season (90-27)
League finish: First in Ottawa-Kent Conference Silver
Championship history: Two MHSAA titles (most recent 1996), two runner-up finishes.
Players to watch: Nate VanRyn (.377, 25 R, 21 RBI); Jamie Bristol (6-1, 1.37 ERA pitching, .370); Cole Boender (5-0, 0.29 ERA pitching, .348); Josh DeYoung (9-0, 0.60 ERA, 82 K pitching, .333, 23 R, 22 RBI).
Outlook: Calvin Christian has won four league and three District titles under Bishop, and now is back in Battle Creek for the first time since 2002. The Squires eliminated No. 2 Lansing Catholic in the Regional and have won 17 of their last 18 games. Only three starters graduate, meaning Calvin Christian could be building for a run in 2014 as well.
MADISON HEIGHTS BISHOP FOLEY
Record/rank: 33-2-1, No. 1
Coach: Buster Sunde, fifth season (164-25-1)
League finish: First in Detroit Catholic High School League AA
Championship history: Division 3 champion 2012 and 2011, Class B runner-up 1990.
Players to watch: Michael Murley, jr. CF/P; Chad Gravlin, sr. 1B/P; Garrett Schilling, jr. P/SS; Nathaniel Grys, soph. LF. (Statistics not submitted.)
Outlook: Despite graduating an Major League draft pick in catcher Brett Sunde, Bishop Foley hasn’t missed a beat – even with only two seniors on this season’s team. Bishop Foley earned impressive wins against bigger schools including Detroit Catholic Central and Brother Rice and didn’t give up a run in the District tournament.
Record/rank: 24-5, unranked
Coach: Edward Mervyn, 34th season (566-385)
League finish: Second in Huron Shores Conference
Championship history: Has never played in an MHSAA Final.
Players to watch: Tyler Janish, sr. P (8-1, 0.86 ERA, 99 K pitching, .506, 61 R, 4 HR, 64 SB); Jens Gillings, jr. C (.424, 27 R, 31 RBI, 24 SB); Jordan Runyon, sr. 1B (.420, 34 RBI); Mike Arndt, soph. SS (.369, 39 R, 32 RBI, 41 SB).
Outlook: This is Whittemore-Prescott’s longest run ever and first trip to Bailey Park – and could be just the start of a two-year run with only three seniors in the lineup. The Cardinals have a supply of offense and scored at least 10 runs in 11 games this spring – with seven regulars stealing at least 10 bases and six driving in at least 20 runs. Junior Ivan Lauria joins Janish with an 8-1 pitching record.
Record/rank: 34-2, No. 3
Coaches: Brad Antcliff, seventh season (225-39-3)
League finish: First in Highland Conference
Championship history: Three MHSAA championships (most recent 2010).
Players to watch: Ryan Marshall, sr. SS/P (8-1, 1.50 ERA pitching; .383, 34 R, 32 RBI, 23 SB); Ty Rollin, jr. SS/P (9-1, 1.22 ERA pitching, .389, 48 R, 24 SB); Joe Rau, sr. LF (.369, 35 R, 21 RBI); Chase Rollin, fr. RF (.473).
Outlook: Beal City is in the Semifinals for the fourth time in five seasons and seeking its third championship after winning back-to-back in 2009 and 2010. The slate has been impressive this spring; the Aggies own wins over Division 2 Semifinalist Remus Chippewa Hills and Division 4 No. 5 Muskegon Catholic Central and No. 7 Decatur over the last eight games. The losses came to No. 1 University Liggett and Division 2 No. 6 Bullock Creek.
GROSSE POINTE WOODS UNIVERSITY LIGGETT
Record/rank: 29-4, No. 1
Coach: Dan Cimini, 10th season (275-55)
League finish: First in Michigan Independent Athletic Conference
Championship history: Two MHSAA championships (most recent 2011), two runner-up finishes.
Players to watch: Nathan Gaggin, sr. C/P (.507, 27 R, 6 HR, 50 RBI); Nicholas Azar, soph. SS (.416, 31 R, 6 HR, 39 RBI); Connor Fannon, sr. P/1B (10-1, 2.50 ERA, 79 K pitching, .409, 28 R, 43 RBI); Mark Evan Auk, sr. OF/P (.402, 36 R, 24 RBI).
Outlook: University Liggett was the runner-up last season and is playing for its third straight championship game appearance. The Knights are loaded with star power; Fannon was an all-stater as a sophomore and Gaggin, Azar and Auk were all-staters last season. Two of the last three postseason wins came against No. 10 Concord and No. 6 Royal Oak Shrine, and University Liggett also owns wins against No. 3 Beal City and Division 1 No. 6 Brother Rice.
MAPLE CITY GLEN LAKE
Record/rank: 28-7, No. 12
Coach: Kris Herman, 10th season (202-157-4)
League finish: Fourth in Northwest Conference
Championship history: Class D runner-up 1984.
Players to watch: Austin Odziana, soph. 1B/P (.459, 26 R, 12 2B, 23 RBI, 4-1 pitching); Thomas Waning, jr. 2B/P (8-4, 1.49 ERA, 110 K pitching, .424, 11 2B, 39 R, 33 RBI, 24 SB); Travis Moore, fr. OF/P (.422, 25 R, 34 RBI); Trevor Apsey, jr. C (.411, 40 R, 33 RBI, 20 SB),
Outlook: Glen Lake lost three of its final four regular-season games, but caught fire in the playoffs to advance to the Semifinals for the first time since 2001. The Lakers beat Suttons Bay after splitting right before the start of the postseason and beat No. 11 Frankfort in the Regional Final after being swept earlier this spring. Freshman Zach Cooper starts in right field and also is 7-1 pitching.
Record/rank: 25-5, unranked
Coach: Keith Villano, third season (80-18-2)
League finish: First in Genesee Area Conference Blue
Championship history: Has never played in an MHSAA Final.
Players to watch: Taylor Quentin, fr. OF (.541, 15 2B, 46 RBI); Grant Steinborn, soph. 1B/P (9-0, 1.63 ERA pitching, .408, 33 RBI); Tyler Moore, sr. 2B/P (.400, 31 R); Kyle Chappelle, jr. 3B/P (.318, 22 RBI, 41 R).
Outlook: New Lothrop have built on last season’s Quarterfinal berth by returning to the Semifinals for the first time since 1998. The Hornets have outscored their postseason opponents by a combined 40-11. And the run is even more impressive considering the roster has more underclassmen (seven) than upperclassmen (six). Centerfielder Mitch Perizzolo hits .346 in joining with Moore as the team’s lone seniors.
PHOTO: Bay City Western senior Briton Ott fires a pitch during Tuesday's Division 1 Quarterfinal win over Rockford. (Click to see more at HighSchoolsSportsScene.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.)