Hot Hitting Again Bolsters Plentiful Pitching as Novi Clinches 1st Title

By Keith Dunlap
Special for

June 17, 2023

EAST LANSING – When Novi head baseball coach Rick Green presided over his team for the official start of practice in March, there were two immediate observations.

One, in his words, “there is a lot of work to do” – but that’s normal talk that just about every coach probably spoke at that moment.

Second and most importantly, there was something else about his team that stood out as he began his 23rd season at the helm.

“I knew we had the pitching staff as long as we are healthy,” Green said. “We were deep in the pitching staff.”

The entire state saw that firsthand during this MHSAA Tournament.

For the first time, Novi is a state champion in baseball following an 8-3 win over Brownstown Woodhaven in the Division 1 championship game at Michigan State University’s McLane Stadium. 

Over seven tournament games, Novi allowed just 14 runs, and Green added that another facet of his team emerged over the last three weeks.

The Wildcats raise their trophy during the awards presentation.“Our pitching staff carried us most of the way, and then hitting came through in the playoffs,” he said.

It certainly wasn’t an easy road for Novi (32-8), which knocked off the likes of Catholic League finalist Detroit Catholic Central, No. 3-ranked Northville, No. 7 Battle Creek Lakeview, No. 16 Hartland and a 30-win Woodhaven team en route to the title. 

Before this dream run, Novi hadn’t made it to the Semifinal round since doing so in 1973, when the Wildcats finished runner-up in Class C. 

Senior Alex Czapski was able to speak about the historical significance for the program better than any of his teammates after the game, given he had older brothers who graduated in 2014 and 2017 and the farthest any of them got was the Regional round. 

Czapski, whose tying single with two outs in the seventh inning of a Semifinal against Mattawan kept Novi alive before his team went on to win that game in 10 innings, literally has grown up around the program. 

“We have just been playing for this team for a long time,” Czapski said. “We had pitching depth, and we had hitting that tended to get hot. The thing we know about this team that makes us stand out is we have a brotherhood. Our team chemistry is something I don’t think I’ve seen out of a Novi team.”

Novi was in control throughout the Final, collecting 15 hits and putting constant traffic on the bases. 

The Wildcats opened the scoring in the top of the third inning, taking a 2-0 lead on a 2-run single by junior Thad Lawler with the bases loaded and two outs.

Novi tacked on three more runs in the fourth inning, with juniors Brendon Bennett and Andrew Kummer and senior catcher Brett Reed each providing RBI singles to give their team a 5-0 lead. 

Novi's Uli Fernsler makes his move toward the plate. Woodhaven (32-12) got on the board in the bottom of the fourth, cutting Novi’s lead to 5-1 when senior Nick Phillips singled with pinch-runner Dawson Terry on second base. Terry scored when a throw to home got past the catcher.

After a scoreless fifth inning, Novi all but put the game away by scoring three runs. One scored on a wild pitch, and then Reed hit a 2-run single to left-center to give the Wildcats an 8-1 lead.

Woodhaven did make things a bit interesting in the bottom of the seventh, scoring two runs and putting runners on first and third with one out. But Reed threw out a runner trying to steal second, and Novi sophomore Uli Fernsler then finished a complete-game performance with a strikeout to start the celebration on the field. 

Fernsler allowed three runs and eight hits, walked none and struck out eight. Woodhaven, meanwhile, had to use four pitchers and struggled to contain Novi’s offense.

The Warriors were making their second trip to the championship game after falling 8-1 to Grosse Pointe South in 2018. 

“(Fernsler) pitched a really good game, and we were the opposite,” Woodhaven head coach Corey Farner said. “We didn’t hit our spots at all and had a hard time getting outs. You can’t put 19 runners on base and expect to win. That was the difference in the game. They pitched a really good game, and we didn’t.”

Bennett had three hits and an RBI, junior Caleb Walker had three hits and Reed had two hits and three RBI to lead Novi in its historic victory.   

“This is so special,” Green said. “I’m so happy for our kids, and I’m so happy for all of our past players.”

Click for the box score.

PHOTOS (Top) A Novi hitter drives a pitch during Saturday's first championship game at McLane Stadium. (Middle) The Wildcats raise their trophy during the awards presentation. (Below) Novi's Uli Fernsler makes his move toward the plate. (Photos by Olivia Napier/Hockey Weekly Action Photos.)

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."

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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.)