By Geoff Kimmerly
Second Half editor
PORTLAND – Hopefully Brandon Scheurer always remembers his most thrilling five minutes in high school baseball like they were five minutes ago.
Two years ago, just a sophomore but already playing shortstop for the second time in a Division 4 championship game, Scheurer awaited the ground ball that could clinch Portland St. Patrick’s first MHSAA Finals title.
“There was a runner on first, two outs, and I got hit a ground ball right at me. I'm not going to lie; (I was) a little nervous there and I kinda came up on it a little bit, almost booted it, but I got it in my glove, flipped it to our second baseman and he got the force out at second for the last out,” Scheurer recalled this week. “Honestly, after that it was like blacking out a little bit. I heard the cheers and the roar after we got that last out. We all went and jumped on each other, and after coming out of the pile and kinda coming back down to Earth a little bit I saw my dad and just went over and gave him a huge hug and then saw my Uncle Bryan and gave him a huge hug.
“He's like, all that, everything we’ve done, has been working towards this moment right here.”
Brandon Scheurer wants to enjoy that moment one more time.
Sports, St. Pat’s and Scheurers have been synonymous for three decades. And Brandon, the second-oldest of this next generation of Scheurer Shamrocks present and future, has more than propped up the family tradition.
Scheurer is finishing his fourth varsity season manning shortstop for what is again the top-ranked team in Division 4, and is signed to continue his career at Saginaw Valley State University. Uncle Bryan is in his 15th season as varsity baseball coach, and the team has won nearly 75 percent of its games under his leadership. Dad Mark is Bryan’s forever assistant, plus just stepped down after 19 years coaching basketball including the last 12 guiding St. Patrick’s boys varsity.
Mark Scheurer won nine letters at St. Patrick before graduating in 1989, then walked on at Central Michigan University and played himself into three seasons as a starter. Bryan also was a three-sport standout graduating from St. Patrick in 1996, played on a national championship baseball team at Grand Rapids Community College in 1997 and then starred at CMU while becoming an Academic All-American in 2001.
The family athleticism extends farther than dad and uncle. Brandon’s mother Jill was a gymnast at CMU. Cousin Dylan Carroll played football at Grand Valley State and recently signed a free agent contract with the Chicago Bears. Cousin Chase Fitzsimmons is the Shamrocks’ catcher, and cousin Nathan Lehnert a top pitcher. Both of Brandon’s younger sisters are three-sport athletes. The lone older cousin, Mallory (whose dad Jeff is Mark and Bryan's older brother), was a three-sport athlete at St. Patrick and graduated a year ago.
“I hoped he’d never have that pressure, but some comes with (the name),” Bryan Scheurer said. “But he’s a better high school player than Mark or I were. Mark was just OK, I had more over-the-fence power, but I didn’t have the arm (Brandon) has in high school.
“He’s just a coach on field, just a complete player with all the things he can do to help us win.”
Brandon, like Bryan, was a quarterback growing up but stopped the sport after a broken left femur suffered on a tackle in eighth grade led to three months in a cast with 8-inch pins holding things together. Instead, Brandon spent one fall season as a sophomore running cross country, and all four winters with Dad on the varsity basketball team. Brandon scored more than 1,000 points with an MHSAA record book-qualifying 201 3-pointers over 81 games.
On the diamond, he's a two time all-stater and academic all-stater. This spring, heading into Thursday’s doubleheader against Fulton, Brandon was hitting .569 with 12 doubles, three triples and 29 RBI while leading off, plus had stolen 23 bases. He’d also struck out 43 with just four walks in 21 1/3 innings pitched, and hadn’t given up an earned run mostly serving as the team’s closer.
He’s been around sports since before he could walk. Mark used to hire a student to watch Brandon in his car seat as an infant during basketball practices, and Brandon has been every kind of ball boy and had his dad and/or uncle as coaches in everything going back to at least seventh grade.
A son of two teachers, academic prowess also doesn’t fall far from the tree. Scheurer is ranked second in his graduating class with a GPA over 4.0 and will study mechanical engineering at SVSU. He was a finalist this winter for an MHSAA/Farm Bureau Insurance Scholar-Athlete Award, given to only 32 seniors statewide.
“We’ve always told him lead your own life, lead your own path, and you’ll be judged accordingly,” Mark Scheurer said. “He’s always been driven by numbers, by academics, wanting to be the best.
“For me and for Jill, it’s just been an awesome ride watching him and being able to be a part of it as a dad and as a coach. People ask me about the stress of it, but I wouldn’t have it any other way.”
Brandon’s Scholar-Athlete application essay focused on how Mark taught him at a young age to win with humility and lose with grace, and Brandon said he’s learned most from his dad and uncle how to be a leader and what leadership really means. “There's a lot of things that go into it,” Scheurer said. “The leader isn't just the guy that leads stretches and the guy that's the captain of the team. From the worst guy on your team to the best guy on your team, you have to know how to address every single person and what everybody needs to hear.”
With St. Patrick also finishing Division 4 runner-up his freshman season, and then going 20-8 a year ago before falling in its District, few players in the state have enjoyed as much success or experienced as much at tournament time.
The seeds were planted early, but Brandon especially remembers when he and Bryan – his confirmation sponsor – watched “Remember the Titans” together as part of Brandon’s prep. They were supposed to find and discuss aspects of faith in the movie. They both also remember watching the ending when T.C. Williams High School wins a Virginia state championship, and discussing how it would feel to be part of something like that together.
A few months later, they experienced it themselves at McLane Baseball Stadium.
With some star power plus the deepest bench and pitching since Bryan Scheurer has been coach, they are on track to give it another shot. St. Patrick is 23-1 and opens play Monday in the Capital Diamond Classic against Division 2 DeWitt, before facing Division 3 top-ranked Pewamo-Westphalia for the Central Michigan Athletic Conference championship next Friday. Both should serve as valuable preparation for a run at Division 4.
“I think it's a good start; I don't want to say it's over yet,” Brandon Scheurer said. “This is definitely a good start to the kind of year we wanted to have, especially after last year. (Finishing) 20-8 for a lot of teams is really good – it's a great year. But for how we played the two years before that, 34 wins back to back years, it's just kinda how we got used to playing.
“We want to try to make that run into June again. That's a goal this team has and that I have personally – I want to get back there. I want to try to win another state championship, because that was one of the coolest things that's ever happened. Especially seeing my dad and uncle afterward, the hugs we gave each other, that's something since I've been really little that we've always worked for and tried to work towards.
“They came really close, and to actually get them that was awesome. But I'd love to do it again.”
Geoff Kimmerly joined the MHSAA as its Media & Content Coordinator in Sept. 2011 after 12 years as Prep Sports Editor of the Lansing State Journal. He has served as Editor of Second Half since its creation in Jan. 2012. Contact him at [email protected] with story ideas for the Barry, Eaton, Ingham, Livingston, Ionia, Clinton, Shiawassee, Gratiot, Isabella, Clare and Montcalm counties.
PHOTOS: (Top) Brandon Scheurer in 2017 picks up the grounder that led to the final out of the Division 4 championship game. (Middle) Scheurer, with his parents and sisters, celebrates reaching the 1,000-point milestone this past basketball season.
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.)