Liggett, GR Christian Zero Out Opponents, Zero In on Championship Day

By Keith Dunlap
Special for

June 16, 2023

EAST LANSING – Grosse Pointe Woods University Liggett senior pitcher Joey Randazzo knew the magnitude of the opposing lineup and opposing pitcher.

But he insisted there wasn’t extra pressure on him going into a Division 2 Semifinal against 2022 champion Ada Forest Hills Eastern.

“My goal is never to put up zeroes,” Randazzo said. “My goal is to pound the zone and let my defense work. My job is just to pound the zone.”

Randazzo did better than that. 

He pounded the zone and also happened to put up zeroes, tossing a 5-hit shutout to lead Liggett to a 2-0 win over Forest Hills Eastern in what was the definition of a pitchers’ duel. 

Liggett, which won the Division 3 title two years ago, will go for its seventh Finals championship at 2:30 p.m. Saturday against Grand Rapids Christian.

A Liggett player lets out a yell during his team's win.The most dominant players all game were Randazzo and Forest Hills Eastern senior Jacob Pallo, who entered the game with a 0.49 ERA and allowed only one hit through his first five innings of work. 

After having only one runner get to second base over the first five innings, Liggett finally mounted what turned out to be the deciding rally in the bottom of the sixth. 

A single by Randazzo and a double by junior Reggie Sharpe set the table with two outs for senior Oliver Service. On a 3-1 count, Service hit a tapper in front of the plate that was fielded by Pallo, who had to hurry his throw to first to get the speedy Service.

The throw got past the first baseman, allowing Randazzo and Sharpe to score. 

In the top of the seventh, Randazzo gave up a leadoff single to Pallo, but a double play and a popout ended the game. 

Pallo allowed just three hits and one walk to go along with six strikeouts in what also was a terrific performance.

“He pounds the zone, and he does what I ask him to do,” Liggett head coach Dan Cimini said of Randazzo. “He throws off-speed and moves the ball all over the place. He’s got like 12 different fastballs. He’s just a gamer.” 

There will be a new champion in Division 2 with Forest Hills Eastern dethroned, but it was still quite a run for the Hawks over the last two years to win a title and get back to the Semifinal round. 

“Just the growth throughout the season to get to this point was tremendous,” Forest Hills Eastern head coach Ian Hearn said. “Hats off to Randazzo. He mixed it up really well and kept us off balance.” 

Click for the box score.

Grand Rapids Christian 4, Flint Powers Catholic 0

It was deja vu for Grand Rapids Christian and senior pitcher Kyle Remington.

Last year, Remington was the winning pitcher in a Division 2 Semifinal, allowing just one run in a complete-game performance.

A year later it was pretty much a duplicate performance, except this time Remington didn’t allow any runs, tossing a 7-hit shutout to lead Grand Rapids Christian past Flint Powers. 

Now, the Eagles hope it won’t be deja vu Saturday, when it will try to not repeat the loss in last year’s championship game. 

 Grand Rapids Christian’s Josh Winkle (12) attempts to race home in front of a play.“I understand how difficult the road is getting here,” Grand Rapids Christian head coach Brent Gates said. “We’ve had a goal from day one to get back here and finish the job. We’re one away now.” 

The Eagles (35-5) earned another opportunity thanks in large part to Remington, who struck out seven and walked one. 

Remington’s biggest moment came in the bottom of the first inning, when he got out of a bases-loaded, two-out jam with a strikeout.

“It was pretty big not to give up any runs in a bases-loaded jam,” Remington said. “I think it was a slider. I can’t really remember, but it was pretty huge.”

Grand Rapids Christian opened the scoring in the top of the second inning, scoring three runs on three hits and an error.

Cam Seth plated one run on a fielder’s choice, and then senior Isaac Hubka hit a single to center that scored two more runs. 

In the bottom of the third inning, Powers had runners on first and second with one out, but following a single to center by senior Jack Dawley, a perfect relay to home by Grand Rapids Christian cut down the Powers’ baserunner at the plate. 

Powers couldn’t get a 2-out hit, and the game remained 3-0. 

In the top of the fourth inning, the Eagles made it 4-0 on an RBI single by junior Parker Seth. 

Powers (33-9-2) was making its first appearance in a Semifinal since 1984. 

“They played hard all the way to the end,” said Powers’ Tom Dutkowski, who completed his 41st year as head coach. “I don’t feel like we lost so much as we got beat by a team that played a little bit better than us. They had a little more timely hitting and made a couple of plays that were really outstanding. It was a well-played game by a very experienced Grand Rapids Christian team.”

Click for the box score.

PHOTOS (Top) University Liggett catcher Oliver Service lays out to get to a foul ball Friday at McLane Stadium. (Middle) A Liggett player lets out a yell during his team's win. (Below) Grand Rapids Christian’s Josh Winkle (12) attempts to race home in front of a play. (Photos by John Castine/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.)