By Tim Robinson
Special for Second Half
Zach Hopman has heard of Drew Henson, of course.
You can’t play for Brighton and not see Henson’s list of accomplishments during a stellar baseball career at Brighton a generation ago.
But Hopman, a left-handed hitter who plays right field and pitches for the Bulldogs, didn’t know until after he hit four home runs during a doubleheader May 21 that he was within shouting distance of Henson’s Brighton school record for home runs in a season.
The four homers Hopman hit on a cold, blustery day during a sweep of Ann Arbor Pioneer gave him 18 for the season, putting him within reach of the Brighton mark of 23, set during Henson’s junior year in 1997.
Only six players in state history have hit more homers in one season. Zach Fish of Richland Gull Lake set the record with 24 in 2011.
“The ball jumped off his bat in a way it doesn’t for a lot of guys,” Brighton coach Charlie Christner said. “It just takes off, and he’s been driving a lot of baseballs this season, and not just to right, but to all fields. It used to be that it was all pull, but this year he’s hitting gap to gap and driving the ball to right field.”
Hopman had six homers last season for the Bulldogs, but noticed an uptick in his power during summer ball.
He spent the winter working out with teammate Jack Krause when not participating in team offseason workouts.
“We would hit with the team twice a week,” Hopman said. “Jack and I would go every weekend, twice a weekend, to go hit at the Legacy Center. Sometimes when we got dismissed from school early, we would go and hit.”
That part of the routine has paid off, to be sure, but Hopman says he’s improved his approach at the plate, too.
“I think I’m seeing the ball a lot better,” he said. ‘I’m more selective with my pitches. That was a problem last year. I had trouble reading pitchers out of the pitcher’s hand. I think my swing is the same, but I haven’t really watched it to make a comparison.”
Hopman, who hits third for the Bulldogs, is part of the best hitting team (averaging .360 as a squad) in Christner’s seven seasons as Brighton coach.
“The guys in front of him have been getting on base,” he said. “Brendan Harrity and Jack Krause have been getting on a lot. And the guys behind him at 4-5-6 are all hitting at least .375. So you can do what you want to do to Zach (pitching-wise) but the guys behind him have picked it up, too.”
Hopman’s average has been around .500 all season, and his power numbers also have gotten him attention.
In that doubleheader against Pioneer, Hopman was 7-for-8 with the four homers and a triple. But a single proved memorable, too.
“My bat broke on one of my singles,” he said, grinning. “The knob fell off, and my hand was stinging for a solid inning.”
He’s not so bad on the mound, either. He pitched two innings of relief that Monday, with all six outs coming via strikeouts.
Hopman’s baseball roots run deep at Brighton. His older brothers, Carson and Trevor, both played for Brighton.
“They’ve been really supportive,” Zach said. “They come with me to hit at the high school on weekends, and they come to my games. It’s really nice that they’re here.”
His approach at the plate has been straightforward.
“I try to think middle,” he said. “A line drive up the middle. I don’t think about home runs, because then I’ll have a bad swing. I’m not trying to pull the ball any more. I don’t want to get into the home-run mentality.”
In other words, if the record comes, it comes.
And if it doesn’t, it still has been a senior season to remember for Zach Hopman.
PHOTOS: Brighton’s Zach Hopman has sharpened his swing to make a run at his school’s home run record set by Drew Henson. (Photos by Tim Robinson.)
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.)