By Matt Schoch
Special for Second Half
EAST LANSING – Grand Rapids Catholic Central's Brenden Leonard said Thursday that teammate Joe Collins had ice water in his veins.
Funny, because while he said that, Leonard had ice and freezing cold water all over his body.
The ninth-hitting senior, who came into the night with three RBI on the season, was a catalyst for his team’s 3-2 victory against Trenton in the Division 2 Semifinal at Michigan State’s McLane Baseball Stadium.
Leonard reached base three times, playing a hand in all three runs, and Collins shut the door, striking out the side in the seventh to preserve the win.
“That kid (Collins) is made for those moments, ice in his veins, cool as a cucumber,” Leonard said, shortly after getting the Gatorade water bath from his teammates while doing post-game media interviews. “He’s built for those moments – level-headed and he’s always making the plays.”
Leonard could’ve been referring to himself after his RBI single in the second inning opened Catholic Central's scoring, and pinch-runners off his hard-earned walks provided the other runs.
“Everyone on this team is just a gamer,” Collins said. “When we need a big hit, a big play – this whole tournament, whoever has been up at the plate, they’ve made the play for us.
“That’s kind of defined our tournament, in my opinion. Just big plays when we need them from everyone.”
Ben Joppich earned the win, allowing two runs over six innings and improving to 9-1 in his senior season.
Joppich gave way to Collins for the seventh, where the reliever shut the door, setting down one Trenton batter looking and the other two swinging.
“I had to settle myself down during warmups a little bit, but once I threw that first pitch, it was just kind of a normal game, just got settled in,” Collins said. “We needed three outs and then we’re going to the state championship. That got me settled down.”
Coach Tim MacKinnon and the Cougars (27-10) will play Orchard Lake St. Mary’s at 11:30 a.m. Saturday for what would be the program’s second Finals championship and first since 1985.
In the loss, Trenton junior right-hander Kyle Richey allowed two earned runs in six-plus innings, striking out six.
Gabe Cavazos opened the scoring for Trenton (32-10) with an RBI single in the first inning.
Catholic Central took the lead on a pair of two-out RBI singles, first by Leonard in the second inning to tie, and then by junior Kyle Tepper in the fifth for the lead.
Trenton tied it on a schoolyard play in the bottom of the fifth. A runner stole second, drawing a throw from the Catholic Central catcher. After Trenton's Brenden Donovan broke for home, the throw to the plate was high, and the junior scored his second run of the night.
Catholic Central responded in the top of the seventh, as another throwing miscue led to the winning run.
Myles Beale singled pinch-runner Matt Moore to second after Leonard’s walk, and Trenton coach Todd Szalka went to sophomore Micah Ottenbreit to relieve Richey.
Ottenbreit struck out the first batter he faced, and then Luke Passinault’s grounder to second base looked like a potential inning-ending double-play ball.
However, an errant throw after the force out at second allowed Moore to score.
Collins, who also had a hit, took it from there.
“It’s something that Catholic Central is not really used to – we’re mostly a football school, but we’re a baseball school too,” Leonard said.
“We can play a little ball. So I guess we’ll play a little ball Saturday.”
Orchard Lake St. Mary’s 10, Muskegon Oakridge 0 (6 inn.)
Junior left-hander Logan Wood threw a complete-game, two-hit shutout to earn the win.
Wood struck out 10 batters and walked two, and closed his pitching season with a 10-0 record.
“Just one more,” Wood said. “We had a great game. The team hit the ball, I pitched well, a great game overall. I was feeling pretty good right from the start coming out of the bullpen.”
OLSM (33-9-2) stayed unbeaten over its last 28 games, a stretch that includes two ties.
Wood struck out five batters in the first two innings, and coach Matt Petry said his ace needed just 69 pitches in six innings.
“Logan did an excellent job,” Petry said. “For his standards, he struggled last time against St. Clair, but kept us in the game. But today, I think he almost took it personal about his last outing.
“He wanted to be great today, and he was.”
The Eaglets will be going for their fourth title Saturday and kept Oakridge at bay, as Eagles coach Brandon Barry was going for career win No. 500 and the school’s first Final appearance.
Senior pitcher Koleman Wall kept Oakridge (26-8) in the game early, stranding four runners in the first two innings, and allowing just one run through three.
But OLSM sophomore Alex Mooney broke the game open with a two-out, two-run double to the wall in the fourth inning to make it 4-0. He had three hits and three RBI.
“I knew we were going to hit the ball," Wood said. "We’ve got a great-hitting team top to bottom."
Cole Sibley’s two-run triple highlighted a four-run fifth inning, and OLSM scored twice in the sixth to end the game.
For the Eaglets, Sibley had three hits and three RBI, freshman Nolan Schubart had two hits and two RBI, and senior Ryan DuSang and freshman Jack Crighton also both had two hits.
Kolbe Stewart had a triple in the second inning, and Joe Terpenning added a single for Oakridge.
PHOTOS: (Top) Orchard Lake St. Mary’s Logan Wood (11) and Steve Essig (15) join their teammates in celebrating a Semifinal win Thursday. (Middle) GRCC catcher Luke Passinault and pitcher Joe Collins go airborne after shutting down Trenton.
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.)