Holland Christian senior – Baseball
Mokma has accomplished more than most during a varsity career now in its fourth season. But until last week, he’d never achieved perfection. The 6-foot-6 right-hander struck out eight of the first nine Holland batters he faced April 19 in tossing his first perfect game, a 3-0 victory that also has earned him the Michigan National Guard Performance of the Week.
Mokma has helped his team to District championships the last two seasons, and last spring despite an injury that briefly kept him off the mound – although he still contributed as the team’s first baseman. He’s back to full strength and has started this season 4-0 with a save, an ERA of 0.53 and 40 strikeouts against only three walks, and while also hitting .425 with 12 runs batted in. He’s been clocked on the mound consistently in the high 80s, topping out at 91 mph, and mixes in a curve that drops from the top of the zone and a slider that rips across the plate. Over the last three seasons, Mokma is 12-3 with a 1.07 ERA and 153 strikeouts with only 24 bases on balls; he’s also hit .410 with 17 doubles, three triples and three home runs. He finished his perfect game with 15 strikeouts, and Holland Christian now stands 14-2.
Also the center on the Maroons' basketball team, Mokma has had his heart set on a college baseball career since elementary school and committed to Michigan State University during the fall of his sophomore year. He carries a 3.3 grade-point average and will major in kinesiology – but has some unfinished business first as he hopes to help a strong senior class carry the team into this season’s final week for the first time since 2006.
Coach Jim Caserta said: “When your best pitcher is a leader, it sets the tone for the whole team. We have a lot of confidence when Mike is on the mound. There’s some pressure that comes with that, but he’s handled that great. He’s contributed not only pitching, but batting as well. But more importantly than that, he’s supported his teammates. Really this year, he’s seen the importance of being a senior leader and taking ownership of the team. We have a nice group of seniors; Mike has contributed a lot the last four years, obviously, and for him and the other seniors being the guys leading the team, it's great. He’s a baseball guy. He studies the game and he’s been around it a lot, and that carries over to his teammates.”
Performance Point: “It was always a childhood dream of mine to throw (a perfect game), and I had put a lot of work into it. I didn’t know (I was close) until the seventh inning, to be honest. With one out, there was a ground ball to second base and our second basemen (Brandon Riemersma) made a heck of a play on it. Our third baseman (Josh Sternberg) turned to me and took a huge deep breath and said, ‘You’ve got a perfect game going.’ From there, the adrenaline started pumping a little bit. … The pitch calls, our catcher (David Williams) did a heck of a job with that; it was probably the best game he’s ever called. Our coach had a big deal with that too, suggesting stuff to throw. The off-speed, the curveball, was probably the best it’s ever been.”
Swing and miss: “Besides the fastball, (my favorite pitch) is probably the slider. Just to see the swings and misses on it, they’re not always the prettiest.”
Dreams come true: “I’ve wanted to go somewhere for baseball since I was 6 or 7. It’s just been a dream of mine. My dad (Scott Mokma) played baseball through high school, and it was a big thing for me. … (MSU) is where I always wanted to go. My grandpa (Earl Mokma) was a big Spartan fan, my dad is a big Spartan fan, and I grew up a big Spartan fan. When they called and I got the offer, it was a no-doubter.”
Lead the way: “The goal has been to win in Districts and Regionals, but we have a long way to go to get there. We have to put in a lot of work, but it’s been a good year so far; we know where we want to be, and we’ve got to put in a lot of work the next couple of weeks. I’ve been given a leadership role, and our coach has stepped back and told us seniors to take over with that. When someone isn’t hustling, he tells us to get on them. We ask them where they want to be in life, where they need to be specifically in baseball for us to be able to win. They usually get on it.”
Changing lives: “I want to do something with physical therapy or be a massage therapist. I’ve been going to a guy in Zeeland who is a massage therapist and I’ve gotten to know the guy really well, and it interests me. You can do a lot of different things, not just work on people, but see how their lives are and make a difference in their lives.”
– Geoff Kimmerly, Second Half editor
Every week during the 2015-16 school year, Second Half and the Michigan National Guard will recognize a “Performance of the Week" from among the MHSAA's 750 member high schools.
The Michigan Army National Guard provides trained and ready forces in support of the National Military Strategy, and responds as needed to state, local, and regional emergencies to ensure peace, order, and public safety. The Guard adds value to our communities through continuous interaction. National Guard soldiers are part of the local community. Guardsmen typically train one weekend per month and two weeks in the summer. This training maintains readiness when needed, be it either to defend our nation's freedom, or protecting lives and property of Michigan citizens during a local natural disaster.
Previous 2015-16 honorees
April 20: Abby Divozzo, Cadillac girls soccer - Read
March 30: Cassius Winston, Detroit U-D Jesuit boys basketball - Read
March 23: Kierra Fletcher, Warren Cousino girls basketball - Read
March 16: Jacob Montague, Grosse Pointe South swimming & diving - Read
March 9: Kyle Tuttle, St. Charles boys bowling - Read
March 2: Brittney Schnicke, Caledonia girls bowling - Read
Feb. 24: Kamari Newman, Detroit East English boys basketball - Read
Feb. 17: Jason Whitens, Powers North Central boys basketball - Read
Feb. 10: Rachel Hogan, Grand Ledge gymnastics - Read
Feb. 3: Nehemiah Mork, Midland Dow swimming & diving - Read
Jan. 27: Mardrekia Cook, Muskegon girls basketball - Read
Jan. 20: Sage Castillo, Hartland wrestling - Read
Jan. 13: Rob Zofchak, Dexter swimming & diving - Read
Jan. 6: Tyler Deming, Caro wrestling – Read
Dec. 15: Jordan Weber, East Jordan boys basketball – Read
Dec. 8: Kaitlyn Geers, Kent City girls basketball – Read
PHOTOS: (Top) Mike Mokma begins his move toward the plate. (Middle) Mokma also is a top hitter and plays first base when he's not on the mound. (Photos by BKBrewer Photography.)
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."
2023 Made In Michigan
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July 18: Frankfort Hoops Staff Bolstered by Past Stars Giving Back in Banktson, Kreski - Read
July 12: Championship Memories, High School Tennis' Impact Stick with Hackett Pair - Read
July 6: Brother Rice Finals Hero Aiming to Ace Family Life, Financial World - Read
July 5: Lapeer West 4-Time Finals Winner Set to Build Champions at Oklahoma - Read
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.)