EAST LANSING – Connor Ziparo kept things simple for Northville on Thursday.
Chances are good that things will become more complicated for the Mustangs on Saturday.
Ziparo, a senior lefthander, threw strikes and let his teammates do the rest as Northville defeated Grand Haven, 9-1, in a Division 1 Semifinal at McLane Stadium on the Michigan State campus.
For Northville (30-10), Saturday’s Final will be a first.
It couldn’t be more different for Saline, recently ranked No. 12 nationally by USA Today. The Hornets disposed of their Semifinal opponent, Grosse Pointe Woods University Liggett, in similar fashion 12-0, but what awaits Saline is far different.
The Hornets (38-3) will be making their sixth Final appearance at 9 a.m. Saturday, seeking their first title.
“It’s a big game for us; it’s big for Northville,” Saline coach Scott Theisen said. “It’s not any bigger than the other five.”
The Mustangs, making their first Semifinal appearance since 1972, played as if they’d been here many times.
Ziparo (7-2) was never in seriously trouble. He gave up four hits, walked one and struck out five. Pitching on four days rest, Ziparo found his comfort zone.
“I was in my normal routine,” he said. “My fastball was my go-to pitch.
“I’ve been all around the country playing, and this is the biggest game of my life. We’re one of the last four teams.”
Ziparo allowed a leadoff double to Ryan Mattson, hit a batter three batters later but enticed the next hitter to fly out to center to end the rally. The next time the Buccaneers had two base runners in an inning was the seventh, when they scored an unearned run.
Third baseman Jake Moody’s two-run single in the first inning was all the support Ziparo needed. Christian Williams had an RBI single in the second to give Northville a 3-0 lead, and the Mustangs broke open the game by scoring three in the fifth inning.
“It was an outside changeup,” Moody said of his first-inning single. “I just went to right field with it. We’ve been pitching well all season. We’ve finally got the bats going late in the season.”
Northville had nine hits, two by Kevin Morrissey and Billy Flohr. Morrissey and Michael Lionas each scored two runs.
Northville also stole three bases and had two sacrifices.
The Mustangs played small ball at times, a part of the game coach John Kostrzewa stresses.
“We were able to execute some bunts and got some base hits out of them, too,” he said. “It took us awhile to figure out our lineup (this season). Once we figured it out, we started to hit. It seems to have helped out our pitching, too, taking some pressure off.”
Grand Haven (24-16) had its best season by far. The Buccaneers had never won a Regional title until this season and began the tournament at 18-15. They went on to win a number of close games during the playoffs, and that fact kept coach Michael Hansen hopeful for a comeback.
“Even when it was 3-0, I thought if we could get a key hit or something we’d be there,” he said. “It didn’t happen. When you get a lefthander (Ziparo) like that, he’s gritty. You don’t have to throw 90 mph to be effective.”
Saline 12, Grosse Pointe Woods University Liggett 0
Saline jumped on University Liggett starter Anthony George with five runs on five hits in the first inning and didn’t let up. Five players had two or more hits, with catcher Sean O’Keefe leading the way with three hits and four RBI.
“We had a good approach at the plate,” Theisen said. “We made some contact. When your pitcher goes out there with a five-run lead, it makes things easier.”
Cole Daniels went the first four innings and gave up one hit, one walk, and he struck out three. Paul Kiyabu went the final inning and gave up one hit.
“(Daniels) didn’t have his best stuff, but he pounded the strike zone,” O’Keefe said. “It’s just what Cole does.
“We were lucky today. We’ve just got to keep it up. (The Final) is not different than any other game. We’ve seen (Northville) before. We know what to do.”
The teams split a doubleheader during the regular season.
Daniels said his arm was a tad sore, and that kept his velocity down.
“I did hit my spots,” he said. “And I got my curveball going after a while.”
It was a remarkable run for University Liggett (33-5). The Knight set a school record for wins a season after capturing the Division 3 title. Coach Dan Cimini petitioned the MHSAA to move up to Division 1 (for two seasons) and his team proved its worth defeating Grosse Pointe North (7-2) in a District Final and the best team in Macomb County, Sterling Heights Stevenson, 6-0, in a Quarterfinal.
“This is a magical season,” he said. “Yeah, (today) is a downer. It’s a bummer. But to take this team to the final four, with just 13 players, moving up two divisions is tremendous. Saline just hit the cover off of the ball. They hit line drives everywhere.”
PHOTOS: (Top) A Northville runner starts his slide into home while Grand Haven catcher Max Schweikert readies to tag him. (Middle) A Saline runner begins to round third base against University Liggett.
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.)