Things were pretty straight forward last spring for Bella Huffman, Karysn Fischer, Alex Dawson and Brooklynn Clark.
Huffman played third base the Bellaire Eagles. Fisher was a designated hitter and outfielder. Dawson regularly played outfield and catcher, and Clark handled second base.
Huffman is senior now. Fisher is a junior. Dawson and Clark are sophomores. They were playing for the Eagles softball team. Today, they are members of the Eagles baseball team. Small numbers forced the cancellation of girls softball for this spring.
Hesitant, maybe at first, the four student-athletes made the leap to baseball.
“This is a slightly unique situation, and I am very proud of the girls for stepping out of their comfort zone to help the baseball team,” said Brad Fischer, Bellaire’s athletic director. “Unfortunately, the numbers were just not there to support a softball team.
“When we had to make the tough call to cancel our softball season, we told the girls that they are more than welcome to join the baseball team – and we are happy that a few chose to do so.”
The girls played their first game Thursday at Pellston for first-year coach Chris Bearup after a handful of games were lost to spring weather complications. All four got playing time.
The girls, and athletic director, credited the coaches for the smooth transition to the baseball field.
“Coach Bearup has done a great job of getting the girls comfortable and making sure they know they are part of the team and have every opportunity that the boys do,” said Fischer, also Karsyn’s father. “His leadership has been tremendous.
“We are fortunate to have him.”
The girls started to become very comfortable with baseball during a meeting after the first practice with Bearup and assistant coach Al Balko.
“They were worried about the boys picking on us and treating us like … we weren’t going to be as good as them,” recalled Clark of the post-practice meeting. “Now they’re being more incorporative.
“They are really trying to make us feel we’re at home, and that we’re welcome,” she continued. “They’re giving us a chance to try everything.”
Huffman has dabbled with pitching, and that may work out. It may be a battery with Dawson in the catching position.
“We all got to practice (pitching),” Karysn said. “Alex was in her catching gear, and we pitched.
“Bella was pretty good at it naturally.”
The girls were confident going into Thursday’s season opener. Their eyes are now opened wider as a result, and they are better prepared to compete as they head to Central Lake on Monday. Huffman, Dawson and Clark all got their first at bats out of the way.
“It was a little nerve racking,” Huffman said.
Dawson was in the starting line-up for the first game. She experienced running the 90-foot bases, after being used to the 60-foot base distances in softball.
“You run your little heart out,” she said. “I didn’t make it there, but I ran."
Bellaire lost 9-1 and 11-0 to Pellston, which had already played two games this year.
The girls are coming into baseball with slightly different expectations for themselves as individual players. All plan to try working harder than the boys.
“I went into this season with high expectations for myself because I knew as a girl on the baseball team I had to work harder than any of the boys to try to prove how good I am or how good I am possibly going to be,” Clark noted. “I think speaking for all the girls, we do.”
Numbers also are low for the baseball team. There are 14 on the roster. The tough result of no softball may have saved the baseball season.
And the senior boys are down to their last swing for a District championship. The boys in the Class of 2022 have yet to win a District in any sport. Cole Robinson is among the seniors seeking that first title.
Robinson had his sophomore baseball season cancelled by the pandemic. His football teams saw limited success. The Eagles boys basketball team made substantial improvements especially this past season, but lost its District opener.
Robinson has carried on since losing his father and coach Brock Robinson in April 2020. His dad served as the assistant baseball coach and head football coach for the Eagles before his unexpected death at the age of 54.
The girls would have been cheering for him to get his first District title. But now they plan to help him win one with their play on the diamond.
“We love Cole,” together they exclaimed.
Tom Spencer is a longtime MHSAA-registered basketball and soccer official, and former softball and baseball official, and he also has coached in the northern Lower Peninsula area. He previously has written for the Saginaw News, Bay County Sports Page and Midland Daily News. He can be reached at [email protected] with story ideas for Manistee, Wexford, Missaukee, Roscommon, Ogemaw, Iosco, Alcona, Oscoda, Crawford, Kalkaska, Grand Traverse, Benzie, Leelanau, Antrim, Otsego, Montmorency, Alpena, Presque Isle, Cheboygan, Charlevoix and Emmet counties.
PHOTOS (Top) A foursome of past Bellaire softball players, from left Alex Dawson, Bella Huffman, Karsyn Fischer and Brooklynn Clark, take a photo during their baseball debuts this week. (Middle) Brooklynn Clark stands in at the plate against Pellston. (Below) Karysn Fischer plays right field for the Eagles. (Top photo by Julie Clark, action photos by Kendall Fischer.)
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.)