By Geoff Kimmerly
Second Half editor
A year ago, Richland Gull Lake coach Bill Blakely looked across C.O. Brown stadium and saw one of the state’s top power hitters of all-time – plus five sophomores battling through the nerves of playing in an MHSAA Division 2 Semifinal.
This spring, that big bat – catcher Zach Fish – played instead for Oklahoma State University. But now, the Blue Devils’ coach sees a team filled with big-game experience and capable of rolling despite the graduation of an all-state Dream Teamer or the recent loss of its ace pitcher to an injury.
Gull Lake is 34-2 this spring and 72-4 over the last two heading into Saturday’s District at Otsego. The Blue Devils are ranked No. 1 in Division 2 with wins over No. 2 Grand Rapids Christian, No. 7 St. Clair and previously-ranked Division 1 Portage Central – that last victory coming Saturday by a score of 9-7 in the Greater Kalamazoo Tournament championship game.
“They remember the games from last year, the importance of playing clean,” Blakely said of his team, which despite Fish's graduation returned this spring nearly intact. “They remember from last year that mistakes can just kill you, and you have to minimize those regardless of the competition.”
That perspective should continue to pay off as the Blue Devils attempt to reach Battle Creek again in three weeks – and this time advance to their first MHSAA championship game.
This week’s Second Half High 5 team honoree has gotten pitching wins from 10 players. Five have at least four wins, and together the staff has a 2.24 ERA. Three pitchers will do the same at Division I or II colleges next season – Nate Stegman (5-1) at Eastern Kentucky University, Lucas Hamelink (7-0) at Hillsdale College and Anthony Wargolet (4-0) at Lake Erie College.
That level of pitching depth is rare to say the least. But as of Thursday morning, Blakely still wasn’t sure who would start Saturday’s District Semifinal. Stegman, an all-state selection in 2011, suffered an arm injury a few weeks ago and might not make it back even if Gull Lake returns to Bailey Park.
So the Blue Devils also must continue to rely on a line-up that returned eight starters from last season’s Semifinal order. Three are hitting at least .400 – shortstop Colton Bradley (.488), third baseman Logan Holwerda (.467) and second baseman/catcher Patrick Gaudard (.402). More impressively, 12 players total have an on-base percentage of at least .400, and the team has 138 stolen bases while being caught only 20 times.
“We’ve talked about having the pieces in place where we could make a run for it,” Blakely said. “We’ll put the pieces together. We’ve won this year differently that last year – we’ve bunted a lot more, stolen a lot more. That part for us is completely new.”
But the pressure that comes now is not. Not only is most of the team back from last season, but Hamelink, Gaudard and junior Connor Owen were part of their 100th Gull Lake wins Saturday – the Blue Devils also went 30-11 when all three were on the team in 2010.
The tough part now will be extending the streak without Stegman. But that depth and experience will go a long way toward making it possible.
“The games when something is on the line, they’ve been more focused and less nervous,” Blakeley said. “And we purposely put together a difficult schedule to have that playoff game atmosphere.”
PHOTO: Outfielder Aaron Fadden is hitting .283 with 14 stolen bases this season after also starting for Gull Lake in 2011.
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.)