EAST LANSING – After a postseason full of winning, the players on the Homer baseball team have become dogpile veterans.
So after the Trojans defeated Grosse Pointe Woods University Liggett 4-0 on Saturday in the MHSAA Division 3 Final, a small game of “I’m not going to be on the bottom” broke out before the traditional baseball celebration commenced.
“The dogpiles get a little more intense, a little more vicious the more you keep winning,” Homer coach Scott Salow said. “Today, I’ll watch the video later, but I think it was pretty good. I think they’ve gotten smart after the last five or six dogpiles; they all kind of look around and wait. I’m the last one out of the dugout, so I’m not going in.”
Homer (33-3) scored four runs in the first inning at McLane Stadium and rode the arm of senior pitcher Zach Butters to its first Finals title since 2006, and third overall.
“We’ve been working to get here for a long time, this group of guys,” Butters said. “It’s overwhelming to finally get here and win this with my guys. It means a lot. I mean, look at all these people out here coming out to support us. We’re a small town, and it’s just a great feeling. It means the world.”
Butters, who also picked up the win in the Semifinal in a relief appearance, kept a potent Liggett off balance for the 6 1/3 innings he was on the mound. He scattered five hits and two walks while striking out six.
“We had a gameplan going into it to stay away,” Butters said. “We saw yesterday where they like to pull, they like to turn over on pitches, so we were just trying to stay away as much as we could and execute the gameplan. My offspeed was pretty good today, and I just had a great defense making plays behind me all day. I couldn’t ask for a better group of guys to go out and battle with.”
Liggett (24-10) knew coming in that would be Butters’ gameplan, but was out-executed.
“He threw his slider/curveball out of the zone, and we just kept swinging at it,” Liggett coach Dan Cimini said. “The gameplan was to not swing at that. If you look back, a lot of 2-1 sliders out of the zone we were swinging at. That’s 3-1, that changes everything. Give him credit for throwing good pitches, but our guys need to lay off that kind of stuff.”
Butters got some help from his defense, which didn’t commit an error and also got him out of the one jam he found himself in all day. With one out and runners on first and second in the sixth inning, Liggett senior Alec Azar hit what looked to be a base hit into left field. But junior leftfielder Dylan Warner made a diving catch and jumped up to double up the runner at second.
“It could have been a better catch, but I got a late read on it,” Warner said. “Then when I got up, I saw the kid halfway, I just threw it and it was right on the money.”
Butters enjoyed his view of the play from the mound.
“I knew it was going to be a close one – Dylan was out there, and he was running,” Butters said. “I was like, ‘Oh boy.’ Then he lays out like Superman, and he comes up with it. It was a great play.”
T.J. VanderKuyl closed out the game, getting the final two outs for the Trojans after Butters reached his pitch limit two batters into the seventh inning. VanderKuyl kept it relatively drama free, and the final out was a roller to Butters at short.
All of Homer’s offense, meanwhile, came in the first inning, highlighted by a two-run double from Kyle Compton and a two-run single from Wilson. The Trojans threatened again in the second, putting runners at the corners with two outs, but Cimini went to the bullpen and brought in senior Billy Kopicki, who ended the threat.
Kopicki was strong in relief, allowing just one hit and two walks while striking out two in 4 1/3 innings. Kopicki is part of a strong senior class that was part of three Final Four runs and helped the Knights win a title in 2016.
“They’ve been great,” Cimini said. “Alec Azar and Billy Kopicki and Logan King are going on to play college baseball. Obviously, Mickey Walkowiak was phenomenal this year at first base, and had great leadership. Kellen Banaszewski is going to try and walk-on at Grand Valley – he made one error all year in the infield. They’re going to be sorely missed, but they paved the way for these younger guys, and these guys know how to act. They were leaders. I’m looking forward to the new class, but I’m going to miss the old class.”
Drew Zelenak led Liggett with two hits, while Patrick Illitch had a double. Wilson led Homer with a pair of hits.
PHOTOS: (Top) Homer's Zach Butters (3) and Damaso LeBron enjoy a moment during the Division 3 championship game. (Middle) Dylan Warner closes in on a diving catch for the Trojans.
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.)