PONTIAC – Ryan Knutson is shocked by how well he and his teammates at Pontiac Notre Dame Prep played at the start of this season.
And the hope is that it will carry over to next month’s MHSAA Tournament.
The Irish were 8-22 a year ago and started this spring 16-0. Notre Dame Prep is 21-4 with less than two weeks remaining in the regular season, and the optimism is high that the run won’t end in District play as it has for the past 21 seasons. The Irish have won one District title in the 24 years that the school has been open, in 1996.
Over the past seven seasons, Notre Dame Prep has won a combined six District games.
“The team morale is up, and we bonded as a team,” Knutson said. “I credit the new coaching staff. Going to Florida over spring break helped us bond. It was during that streak – we had some close games – that the team-bonding paid off.”
Jason Gendreau spent 10 seasons as head coach at Utica Eisenhower, with some success. The Eagles won District titles in 2009, 2011 and 2015. The 2015 season also included a 2-1 victory over Birmingham Brother Rice in a Division 1 Regional Semifinal.
Although he’s not looking back, Gendreau, who continues to teach in the Utica school system, said it was not an easy decision to make when he accepted the position at Notre Dame Prep last June.
“(Eisenhower) is loaded with depth,” he said. “Then there’s all the relationships you build over the years. You know what they say. When a coach leaves, 50 percent are pleased, 50 percent are unhappy.”
Pardon Gendreau if he chuckles now and then about the idea of being a coach at Notre Dame Prep. As a child his favorite team was Notre Dame, the one in South Bend. Nothing was better than watching the Irish playing football on a Saturday afternoon.
Add to this another tale of coincidence, or magic, if you will. One of his mentors is Bob Lantzy, the longtime football coach at Eisenhower who recently completed his second season as head football coach at Rochester Hills Stoney Creek. Lantzy was an all-state running back at Harper Woods Notre Dame in the early 1960s and, when Gendreau was hired at the other Notre Dame, Lantzy dusted off his green and gold jersey and hung it on a wall in his house.
For two seasons in the early 2000s Gendreau was an assistant football coach under Lantzy. Something clicked during that brief period and the two have remained good friends over the years.
“Bob and I talk just about every night,” Gendreau said. “He was my mentor (as a coach), but more importantly he’s been my mentor in life.
“You see, I played football at Belding and grew up answering to (then coach) Irv Sigler. There are no more polar opposites than Irv and Bob. Plus, you throw in the west side and how they approach football. The approach is very different. Irv was the ultimate motivator and got in your face. I tried to coach like that when I got to Ike. It didn’t work. Bob molded me.”
Gendreau was well aware he was taking over a program that had experienced limited success, when it was a member of the Detroit Catholic League and now as an independent. That didn’t matter to him. He knew the athletes he was about to coach were well-disciplined. Teach them the fundamentals, let them have some fun (the Florida trip was a first for this group) and maybe they could win a few more games.
“Lantzy told me opportunity is not time-related,” Gendreau said. “A big thing was, I was able to bring my entire staff over. As far as scheduling, having a lot of relationships with Oakland and Macomb County coaches I was able to schedule competitive schools that were bigger. We played Sterling Heights Stevenson. We played Troy and Troy Athens. We went to Birch Run to play in a tournament with just nine guys because of prom. We made it to the final and lost to Ann Arbor (Gabriel) Richard.
“Plan? I don’t know if we had one, but our goal was to finish .500. We felt comfortable with that. We didn’t want to get beat up. Usually it takes 2-3 years to build a winner. It happened a lot sooner. Part of it is our staff understands our role. We have athletes who are hungry. They’re loyal to one another.”
Notre Dame Prep lost just two seniors last spring to graduation but even so, Knutson said he was surprised by the tremendous start.
He pointed to two factors that keyed the impressive start, and they’re related. One is the defense.
“It’s a main focus,” he said. “Defense is one of the most consistent things of our team. When your defense works, you don’t need as many runs to win. Then on offense you will look to move runners along, trying to get that extra base.”
The second is fundamentals. Knutson said Gendreau and his staff emphasize the finer points of the game: when to bunt, what pitch to look for in certain counts and just an overall awareness of the game.
Even when the offense isn’t producing, defense is a part of the game the Irish can count on. In a weekend series at Lake Orion in late April, Knutson said the team crushed the ball in victories over the host team and Ann Arbor Skyline. The next weekend Notre Dame Prep struggled at the plate and resorted to playing small ball.
The pitching has been consistent as well. River Shea, Jack Kraussman and Jacob Genord have combined for a 17-2 record, and each has an ERA of 2.10 or lower.
There are no superstars on this team. Just two of the eight seniors will go on to play in college. Infielder Brian Blakeslee will attend John Carroll University in Cleveland and play soccer and baseball. Outfielder Tommy Cavanaugh will attend Capital University in Columbus, Ohio, to play baseball.
Knutson, who leads the team in hitting (.448), said he doesn’t plan on playing at the next level and, instead, will attend Michigan State with the intent on majoring in engineering.
“It was hard last year,” he said. “I am so thankful the (new) staff has come in and we’ve been able to make some noise.
“It was that way in football, too. We surprised people by reaching a District Final. It’s kind of similar in baseball. We’re the underdogs. It kind of fueled us.”
Gendreau said coaching at a large school like Eisenhower has its drawbacks. One is the fact a coach must make cuts. Another is it’s the coach’s responsibility to take care of the field. That takes time.
A bonus for Gendreau was the facilities at Notre Dame Prep. In what is nearly a mirror of what previously was added at Grosse Pointe Woods University Liggett, the field at Notre Dame Prep is all turf. No dirt. Not even in the infield. Gendreau said even the bullpen area is turf.
When one considers the often brutal weather conditions in Michigan, having a turf field at your disposal removes a lot of headaches as far as field preparation, postponements and rescheduling.
“They finished that this past winter,” he said. “When I took the job, I was expecting a grass field.”
Tom Markowski is a columnist and directs website coverage for the State Champs! Sports Network. He previously covered primarily high school sports for the The Detroit News from 1984-2014, focusing on the Detroit area and contributing to statewide coverage of football and basketball. Contact him at [email protected] with story ideas for Oakland, Macomb and Wayne counties.
PHOTOS: (Top) Pontiac Notre Dame Prep players huddle on their new field this season. (Middle) Notre Dame Prep catcher Ryan Knutson looks to his dugout. (Below) The current Irish and 1972-73 alums stand together during the field dedication this spring. (Photos courtesy of the Pontiac Notre Dame Prep baseball program.)
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.)