New Holland Christian, Same Title Drive

April 1, 2017

By Dean Holzwarth
Special for Second Half

HOLLAND – The Holland Christian baseball team doesn’t want to reflect too much on the accomplishments of last year.

While they included winning the program’s first Division 2 championship last spring, it’s a new season with a fresh cast of experienced and youthful players.

“Last year was great, and it was a special season for sure, but a lot of people keep referring to it,” Maroons coach Jim Caserta said. “We want to use that as confidence, but at the same time this team hasn’t done anything yet so we have to make our own team and develop as this year’s team. We’re trying to compete every day, not worry about a state championship.”

Holland Christian went 36-6 last year and capped the season with an 8-5 win over Linden in the Division 2 Final.

The Maroons graduated six seniors, including the talented battery of pitcher Mike Mokma, now playing at Michigan State, and catcher David Williams, now at Xavier.

The cupboard, however, isn’t bare. Nine seniors are back, as well as a few underclassmen who were key components to last year’s success.

“Several guys contributed to last year’s success and we’re excited about that,” Caserta said. “This year is a totally different team. It’s a different year, and the guys we have now haven’t been in this leadership position yet, so we’re going to be expecting them to step up and get the job done and really come through when needed. It will be exciting to see what kind of mark this group leaves in our program as well.”

Senior pitcher Jack Huisman is one of several key starters back. He understands the hurdles that come with being reigning champions.

“The target on our back is pretty big and obviously people know we won the state championship last year,” said Huisman, who has signed with Western Michigan. “This is a new year, and there are different guys that are going to have to step up. The biggest thing for us is to not dwell on the past. We have to keep looking forward and keep playing one game at a time, and see where that leads us.”

Caserta said coming off an MHSAA-championship season can be looked upon in a couple different ways.

“It’s a little bit of a two-edged sword,” he said. “It does give our team motivation to come back from, but on the other end everybody you play is going to be ready for you. We try to make that into a positive because that keeps us sharp. We have to be ready to play every time.”

Other key returnees include seniors Coby Curtiss (SS), Brady Brower (2B), Christian Koele (OF), Spencer Brewer (Pitcher) and Sam Wierda (OF).

Sophomore pitcher Chris Mokma provided significant contributions as a freshman.

“I think we have a good potential,” Curtiss said. “We have some young guys who are getting better, and every guy will have to play their role and play their best to have another shot at a title.

“Winning a state title was our goal last year, and it’s our goal this year, but we know how hard it is and how hard we have to work. We’ve been working for it in the offseason again.”

Holland Christian hopes to rely on its pitching, a staple of last year’s team.

“We have good depth this year in our pitching, but may not be at the same individual level with a couple guys so they all need to contribute,” Caserta said. “We won’t have one or two guys to turn to all the time. We’ll do it a little differently than last year.”

The biggest question mark hinges on the Maroons’ ability to score runs.

“A lot of guys batted down in the order a little but have to be the main guys this year,” Caserta said. “We’re unproven offensively, and when we get in pressure situations we will have to count on those guys this year.”

The Maroons mirrored last year’s club in terms of resiliency in only the second game of the season.

They trailed 3-1 in the bottom of the seventh inning with two outs before rallying for a 4-3 win over Rockford.

“Just like last year, we always fought and found a way to win,” Curtiss said. “I think we have a little bit of that in us again this year. If we’re down, we’re always going to fight to come back.”

Although Caserta doesn’t want to make a habit of late-inning comebacks, he said it was a good early sign of the team’s attitude.

“I felt good about the result and how we hung in there at the end,” he said. “Those aren’t games you’re going to win all the time, but our guys didn’t give up, and in a clutch situation we were able to get a couple key hits. We did some really good things, and I give them credit for competing and coming back. It’s encouraging to see that we kept plugging away.”

Dean Holzwarth covered primarily high school sports for the Grand Rapids Press and MLive for 16 years and more recently served as sports editor of the Ionia Sentinel and as a sports photojournalist for WZZM. Contact him at[email protected] with story ideas for Allegan, Kent and Ottawa counties.

PHOTOS: (Top) Holland Christian’s Coby Curtiss follows one of his three hits during last season’s Division 2 Final into left field. (Middle) This season’s Maroons are a mix of veterans and newcomers, with some key players back from last season’s championship team.

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."

2023 Made In Michigan

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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.)