Oilers Add to Decade of Dominance

June 14, 2014

By Andy Sneddon
Special for Second Half

EAST LANSING – Aaron Leasher didn’t need a whole lot of run support.

Still, it was a nice luxury to have as the senior left-hander tossed a four-hitter Saturday in leading Mount Pleasant to a 7-2 win over Richmond in the MHSAA Division 2 Final at McLane Baseball Stadium on the campus of Michigan State University.

It was the Oilers’ third MHSAA championship and first since 2007, and it goes in the books as another highlight in an outstanding run that includes eight District championships and Seven regional titles over the past decade.

“We came in pretty focused, and we pretty much peaked in the tournament here,” said Luke Epple, who completed his 21st year as the Oilers’ coach and has led the program to a 615-166 record and all three of its championships. “I knew we were better than what a lot of people thought we were. We’re young, and just had to keep working at things and make the plays you can make and throw strikes, put the ball in play and keep pressure on them.

“We expect to do well in this tournament, but you’ve still got to execute. Some years past we’ve matched up very good, and we didn’t execute. This team, we really stressed that execution with everything – small ball, driving runs in with two outs, making the plays you should make. We came in focused, and that was what I was most proud of. They didn’t let the other things around them bother them. They wanted to win, and they played to win today.”

And there’s good reason to believe that Mount Pleasant could contend next year and beyond. Five underclassmen were in the Oilers’ starting lineup Saturday. One, sophomore Zach Heeke, gave his team a 1-0 lead with a first-inning sacrifice fly.

Mount Pleasant (32-8-1) tacked on three runs in the third, getting an RBI single from Hunter Buczkowski, a sacrifice fly from Joe Genia, and getting another run on a balk by Richmond starter Dillon McInerney.

Leasher went the distance, striking out seven (four on called third strikes) and walking three.

“I was struggling a little bit early on with trying to get the first pitch across, but in the later innings I started to get my first pitch (for a strike), and that’s where it went from there,” said Leasher, who got outstanding support from a defense that turned two inning-ending double plays behind him. “My defense stayed strong, and we got early run support, so that was great. It calms your nerves down and you just get settled in on the mound, and you can work on trying to throw to contact instead of trying to strike guys out.”

Robert Backus had two hits and two RBI to lead the Oilers as the plate, while Dean Marais also had two hits.

Zach Leach and McInerney had two hits apiece for Richmond, but the Blue Devils never put more than one runner on base in any inning until the sixth. And by then, they trailed 5-0 and Leasher was clearly in a groove. 

Richmond (35-3) lost in the MHSAA Final for the second straight year, and saw its winning streak end at 33 games.

“Every run they tack on, it takes away our small ball; (then) we have to play for a bigger inning,” said Scott Evans, who is 92-20 in three years as Richmond’s coach. “We just hit balls at people.”

Evans returned six starters from a team that fell, 3-0, to Grand Rapids Christian in last year’s Division 2 Final.

“I think we were 100 percent overwhelmed last year,” he said. “(This year) we went deep in all of our at-bats. We only had one strikeout on a ball that was out of the zone. I’m not disappointed in our effort at the plate.

“It’s a great group of kids. I’ll never forget them. They’re like my sons. It’s never been about me; it’s about those boys.”

And for the Oilers, it was all about pitching throughout the tournament as Leasher and Buczkowski, a sophomore right-hander, dominated. In Mount Pleasant’s seven tournament games, they combined to surrender six runs and post two shutouts.

The two runs scored by Richmond – both came in the seventh inning – were the most the Oilers had allowed in any of their tournament games.

“We have some other good pitchers, but these two, we had to go with them,” Epple said. “They were dominating all the way through. They dominated through the regular season. They’ve got a couple losses, but they were like 1-0 (scores) in eight innings.

“We knew if we could pick the ball up, move the runners, score some runs and make the play that you should make (that) we had a good chance to win. And they believed that.”

McInerney took the loss, his first of the season against 12 victories. He allowed four runs on seven hits, while walking one and striking out two over three innings. Jake Schmidt went the final three frames for Richmond, surrendering three runs on three hits, while walking one and striking out three.” 

Click for the full box score. 

PHOTOS: (Top) Mount Pleasant players rush the field to celebrate their third MHSAA baseball championship. (Middle) Oilers pitcher Aaron Leasher struck out seven batters in throwing the shutout.

Vast Experience Shapes Retired MLB-er Gates Into 3-Time Finals-Winning Coach

By Steve Vedder
Special for MHSAA.com

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.)