Garden City Tackles Turnaround Together

May 17, 2019

By Geoff Kimmerly
Second Half editor

Few would argue that the formula for a successful high school baseball team usually includes hard throwers, slick fielders and a lineup stacked with guys who can move runs across the plate.

But team chemistry is an often-overlooked part of that formula that this spring has meant everything to Garden City, one of the best turnaround stories in the state this season and the MHSAA/Applebee’s Team of the Month for April.

A year ago, the Cougars were on their way to an 8-20 finish. This spring, Garden City is 22-3 with a share of the Western Wayne Athletic Conference title and a No. 12 ranking in this week’s Division 1 state coaches poll.  

“It sounds like something simple and an easy thing (to say), but team chemistry wasn’t there – it truly was an issue the last few years,” first-year varsity coach Jon Evans said. “They’d start out hot, and just out of nowhere the team would fall off the cliff. … They’d have tight ballgames, but they couldn’t win a one-run game.

“This year, it seems like the team is a lot closer. They play for each other. That’s helping us. When we’re in close games, we’re winning them now. Every day in practice, every day on the field, the kids are playing for each other.”

It’s impossible to argue with the results. Garden City equaled last season’s win total by April 8 and earned one of its best victories of the season by just a run, 1-0 over preseason Division 2 No. 1 Detroit Country Day.

Chemistry on the field no doubt has been cultivated in part from familiarity with the coach. Evans graduated from Garden City when his seniors were in junior high, in 2014, and after a year playing at Defiance College in Ohio coached the Cougars’ junior varsity the last three seasons while finishing his studies at Eastern Michigan University.

“It's nice because they know when I can say I can relate to them, they know that's true,” Evans said. “I was just in their shoes five years ago, even in the classroom, with things they go through inside the school. I had all the teachers. They have assignments, and I look at the assignment and say I remember doing this. It’s easy for me to help them, and it’s good for players building trust with their coach to know their coach just went through this.”

He took over the varsity in February and previously coached 15 of 18 players on this spring’s roster. Evans’ JV went 15-7 a year ago – a nice sign for this season and the next few to come.

He also had paid attention to behind-the-scenes workings of running a varsity program over the last few years, and all of that familiarity made for a smooth transition when he took over.

“(The success) is not because of me, but having the same coach, I saw them every game they played freshman and sophomore year and I know what their tendencies are, what’s going through their minds,” he said. “It’s tougher competition, but I know how the kids are going respond. It didn’t take a few weeks for me – I knew right away what they were going to do, and the kids knew my coaching style and knew me stepping up to varsity was not going to change who I was.”

A trio of seniors has led the way offensively. First baseman Kevin Widner is hitting .457 with a .636 on-base percentage and 15 RBI, while catcher Trevor McCorry comes in at .438 with six doubles and Jacob Grant is hitting .426 with seven extra-base hits, 17 RBI, 28 runs scored and a .614 on-base percentage. Junior second and third baseman and pitcher Jacob May is adding a .379 average, 29 runs scored and 19 RBI to the offensive output.

Grant is the ace on the mound with a 6-0 record and 1.04 ERA over 34 innings. A number of other pitchers fill out a deep staff of contributors – Widner again stands out with a perfect ERA and 19 strikeouts over 10 innings pitched.

The program had postseason success as recently as 2016, when it won a District title. There is reason to be excited with this spring’s District less than two weeks away, but the Cougars are being cautious – the District opener is against Livonia Franklin, one of just two teams to beat Garden City this season (they split; the other losses came in a sweep by Trenton), and the bracket is competitive throughout.

Evans had a feeling this group would do the little things that, combined with their talent, have sparked a memorable run. Regardless of how this spring finishes up, it’s fair to say it’s been unforgettable so far.

“I had a feeling we’d have a good year this year – it’s a talented group, and when they play hard, when they do the little things right, they succeed,” Evans said. “I saw it on JV – when they played good defense, ran the bases well, put the ball in play, those teams did well.”

Past Teams of the Month, 2018-19

March: Holland West Ottawa boys swimming & diving – Read
February: Lowell wrestling – Read
January: Farmington United gymnastics – Read 
December: Warren Woods-Tower wrestling – Read
November: Rochester Adams girls swimming & diving – Read
October: Leland boys soccer – Read
September: Pickford football – Read
August: Northville girls golf – Read

PHOTOS: (Top) Garden City celebrates during a win over Detroit Country Day last month. (Middle) Senior Jacob Grant fires a pitch – he’s 6-0 this spring. (Photos courtesy of State Champs Sports Network.)

Vast Experience Shapes Retired MLB-er Gates Into 3-Time Finals-Winning Coach

By Steve Vedder
Special for

August 1, 2023

If there is anything that Brent Gates knows for sure, it's that there is no single explanation for three MHSAA Finals baseball championships.

Made in Michigan is powered by Michigan Army National Guard.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.

Gates makes a tag at second base while playing for the national team.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.

Gates presents the championship trophy this season to his Grand Rapids Christian players."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."

2023 Made In Michigan

July 25: After All-American Career, Rockford's Bennett Making Impact as Mat Mentor - Read
July 20: 
Oakridge 3-Sport Star Potts Applying Lessons to 'Second Chapter' in Sales - Read
July 18:
Frankfort Hoops Staff Bolstered by Past Stars Giving Back in Banktson, Kreski - Read
July 12:
Championship Memories, High School Tennis' Impact Stick with Hackett Pair - Read
July 6: 
Brother Rice Finals Hero Aiming to Ace Family Life, Financial World - Read
July 5:
Lapeer West 4-Time Finals Winner Set to Build Champions at Oklahoma - Read

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.)