By Geoff Kimmerly
Second Half editor
Reigning MHSAA champions Hartland and Jackson Lumen Christi will return to Michigan State University's McLane Stadium this weekend hoping to enjoy another celebration on the final weekend of the 2015-16 school year.
But nine of 16 contenders at this season's Semifinals are seeking their first MHSAA title in baseball, and three are hoping to play in a championship game for the first time. It's guaranteed the Division 4 champion will be a first-time winner, as none of the four contenders have claimed an MHSAA title before.
See below for a schedule of this weekend’s games, plus glances at all 16 teams that will take the field beginning Thursday.
Semifinals – Thursday
Traverse City West vs. Warren DeLaSalle, 2:30 p.m.
Saline vs. Hartland, 5 p.m.
Holland Christian vs. DeWitt, 9 a.m.
Linden vs. Dearborn Divine Child, 11:30 a.m.
Semifinals – Friday
New Lothrop vs. Jackson Lumen Christi, 2:30 p.m.
Grosse Pointe Woods University Liggett vs. Scottville Mason County Central, 5 p.m.
Centreville vs. Sterling Heights Parkway Christian, 9 a.m.
Gaylord St. Mary vs. Portland St. Patrick, 11:30 a.m.
Finals – Saturday
Division 1: 11:30 a.m.
Division 2: 9 a.m.
Division 3: 5 p.m.
Division 4: 2:30 p.m.
Tickets cost $8 per round and include admission to softball and girls soccer games those days also at MSU’s Old College Field. Radio broadcasts of all games can be heard online at MHSAAnetwork.com. All games will be streamed live online at MHSAA.TV and viewable on subscription basis. Click to order tickets in advance and for a parking map.
All statistics below are through Regionals. (Click for links to brackets and scores.)
Record/rank: 36-5-1, No. 10
Coach: Brian Morrison, 15th season (397-158-4)
League finish: Second in Kensington Lakes Activities Association West
Championship history: Division 1 champion 2015.
Players to watch: John Baker, sr. 1B/P (.405, 4 HR, 43 RBI; 10-1, 0.83 ERA, 105 K pitching); Hunter DeLanoy, jr. 2B (.403, 26 RBI, 38 R); Nathan Lohmeier, sr. P (8-0, 0.54 ERA, 96 K pitching).
Outlook: Hartland is already eight wins better than the team that won last season’s championship. Baker – who has signed with Ball State University – starred in throwing 10 innings of one-run ball in the Final against Portage Northern, and seven hitters from last season’s lineup are back this weekend. The Eagles have given up only seven runs total in five postseason games during this run.
Record/rank: 34-6, No. 2
Coach: Scott Theisen, 24th season (636-239-8)
League finish: First in Southeastern Conference Red
Championship history: Four runner-up finishes (most recent 2010).
Players to watch: Josh Nelson, sr. P (10-0, 0.63 ERA, 67 K pitching); Jake Finkbeiner, jr. 3B (.409, 4 HR, 38 RBI); Cole Daniels, soph. P/1B (.424, 29 RBI; 8-1, 1.55 ERA, 45 K pitching).
Outlook: Saline has won at least 30 games four of the six seasons since its most recent trip to an MHSAA championship game, and is back in the Semifinals for the first time since 2012. The Hornets have scored 49 runs over five tournament games the last three weeks, and all nine in the lineup hit at least .333 – with Ryan Foley (.412) adding a third over .400.
TRAVERSE CITY WEST
Record/rank: 41-2, No. 9
Coach: Matt Bocian, eighth season
League finish: First in the Big North Conference
Championship history: Has never played in an MHSAA Final.
Players to watch: Nick Brzezinski, sr. CF (.504, 14 2B, 8 3B, 52 RBI, 67 R, 16 SB); Alex Strickland, sr. C (.496, 10 2B, 73 RBI); Jake Newhouse, sr. 3B/C/P (.417, 39 RBI; 5-0, 0.56 ERA pitching).
Outlook: West has built on its first Regional title with this trip to the Semifinals, eliminating No. 3 Bay City Western, No. 4 Rockford and honorable mention Saginaw Heritage during the tournament run. A roster loaded with nine seniors boasts a one-two pitching combination of Keegan Kenny (10-1, 1.40 ERA) and sophomore Ryan Hayes (10-0, 0.64 ERA) and a 2.01 team ERA.
Record/rank: 26-13, unranked
Coach: Matt Cook, sixth season (122-101-3)
League finish: Fourth in Detroit Catholic League Central
Championship history: Three MHSAA titles (most recent 2009), runner-up 2012.
Players to watch: Rob Zurawski, sr. 3B/OF (.389, 11 2B, 30 RBI); Mac Graybill, soph. C/IF (.344); Easton Sikorski, soph. P/IF (7-2, 1.84 ERA pitching).
Outlook: The Pilots have won 10 of their last 11 with victories over honorable mention Grosse Pointe North and Division 2 No. 10 Detroit Country Day during the streak after emerging from the always-tough Catholic League Central. DeLaSalle went a combined 4-5 against Division 1 No. 1 Birmingham Brother Rice and Division 2 No. 2 Orchard Lake St. Mary’s during the regular season. These are the most wins under Cook, who led a team with a sub-.500 record to the Division 1 Final in his second season, 2012.
DEARBORN DIVINE CHILD
Record/rank: 26-15, unranked
Coach: Tony DeMare, 17th season (453-199)
League finish: Third in Detroit Catholic League Central
Championship history: Five MHSAA titles (most recent 2010).
Players to watch: Frankie Lucska, sr. 2B (.384, 17 2B, 37 RBI); Nick Gurney, jr. P/OF (.357, 22 RBI; 6-1, 1.55 ERA, 53 K pitching); Torey DeMare, sr. 1B (.328, 20 2B, 34 RBI).
Outlook: Divine Child is riding a 10-game winning streak and beat No. 10 Detroit Country Day in the Quarterfinal to advance. The Falcons prepared against the treacherous Catholic League Central, earning wins against ranked Brother Rice, Orchard Lake St. Mary’s and Division 1 semifinalist Warren DeLaSalle. Senior left fielder Danny Blade (.315) made the all-state second team last season and leads off, and junior Daniel Bullard (6-2, 1.45 ERA) provides another proven arm.
Record/rank: 30-9-1, honorable mention
Coach: Alan Shankel, seventh season (164-80-2)
League finish: Second in Capital Area Activities Conference Red
Championship history: Two MHSAA titles (most recent 1993), two runner-up finishes.
Players to watch: Michael Stygles, jr. OF/P (.508, 12 2B, 4 HR, 45 RBI; 1.26 ERA, 37 K pitching); Donovan Tarn, sr. 3B/P (.429, 13 2B, 5 HR, 39 RBI; 2.30 ERA, 79 K pitching); Will Nagel, jr. SS/P (.354, 14 2B, 6 HR, 45 RBI; 2.33 ERA 33 K pitching).
Outlook: DeWitt won its third straight Regional title and will return to the Semifinals after reaching in 2014 but missing last season. The Panthers’ 30 wins are their most under Shankel and came with nine sophomores but only three seniors on the roster. DeWitt picked things up quickly this spring, splitting with No. 6 Haslett midway through and taking a win over No. 10 Marshall before the postseason began. Sophomores Mark Connelly (.366), Nolan Knauf (.417) and Josh Robinson (.408) fill out the top six in the lineup along with Stygles, Tarn and Nagel.
Record/rank: 34-6, No. 3
Coach: Jim Caserta, third season (78-24)
League finish: First in Ottawa-Kent Conference Green
Championship history: Has never played in an MHSAA Final.
Players to watch: Mike Mokma, sr. P/1B (.441, 4 HR, 32 RBI, 15 HBP); Brandon Riemersma, sr. CF (.319, 34 R); David Williams, sr. C (.354, 6 HR, 32 RBI).
Outlook: Holland Christian is making its first Semifinal appearance after winning its second Regional title ever, and with an all-state catcher and arguably the best pitcher in Michigan. Although his stats on the mound were unavailable, Mokma has thrown multiple perfect games (the second one shortened) this season and will play collegiately at MSU. Holland Christian beat honorable mentions Grand Rapids Kenowa Hills and Ada Forest Hills Eastern along the tournament path.
Record/rank: 28-9-1, No. 5
Coach: Steve Buerkel, sixth season (140-73-1)
League finish: First in Flint Metro League
Championship history: Division 2 runner-up 2004.
Players to watch: Chris Kitch, sr. 1B (.336); Kevin Bates, sr. SS (.316, 11 SB); Jack Shore, jr. P (12-1, 0.31 ERA, 111 K pitching).
Outlook: Linden is making its second run to the Semifinals ever after winning its fourth straight District title. The Eagles entered the postseason having lost six of their last nine (and closing with Division 1 semifinalist Hartland), but have given up only one run in five tournament games, outscoring those opponents by a combined 18-1. Junior center fielder Ryker Rivera adds another spark to the lineup hitting .319 with 23 stolen bases.
GROSSE POINTE WOODS UNIVERSITY LIGGETT
Record/rank: 29-4, No. 1
Coach: Dan Cimini, 13th season (355-79)
League finish: First in Michigan Independent Athletic Conference Blue
Championship history: Four MHSAA titles (most recent 2014), two runner-up finishes.
Players to watch: William Morrison, soph. CF (.400, 12 2B, 51 RBI, 12 SB); Connor McCarron, jr. SS (.505, 17 2B, 64 R, 21 SB); Sean Fannon, sr. OF (.351, 15 2B, 27 RBI); Matthew Gushee, sr. P/OF (.325, 12 2B, 31 RBI; 9-1, 0.74 ERA, 83 K pitching).
Outlook: All four players mentioned above earned all-state recognition last season as the team won the sixth of what are now seven straight District titles – and the Knights also won Division 3 in 2014 and Division 4 in 2013. Liggett opened this season 23-1 and edged No. 6 Madison Heights Bishop Foley during the Regional; it also owns victories over Division 2 No. 10 Detroit Country Day and Warren DeLaSalle.
JACKSON LUMEN CHRISTI
Record/rank: 25-13, honorable mention
Coach: Phil Clifford, sixth season (133-85-1)
League finish: Tied for first in Interstate-8 Athletic Conference
Championship history: Two MHSAA titles (most recent 2015).
Players to watch: Zach Mehelich, sr. P/IF; John Fleming, sr. C/F; Connor Mogle, jr. C/OF. (Statistics not submitted.)
Outlook: The reigning champ eliminated No. 5 Schoolcraft, No. 7 Parchment and honorable mention Bronson on the way to MSU and during a current nine-game winning streak. Mehelich was an all-stater last season and Fleming the winning pitcher with a shutout in the MHSAA Final. Those two were joined by Mogle in the starting lineup for that championship game.
Record/rank: 40-3, No. 4
Coach: Benjamin Almasy, first season (40-3)
League finish: First in Genesee Area Conference Blue
Championship history: Division 4 champion 2014.
Players to watch: Cam Pope, sr. P (.485, 58 R, 13 2B, 44 RBI; 12-2, 0.42 ERA, 121 K pitching); Quentin Taylor, sr. CF (.575, 63 R, 16 2B, 10 HR, 67 RBI, 20 SB); Zac Besant, soph. C/P (.422, 11 2B, 39 RBI; 10-0, 0.89 ERA 68 K pitching).
Outlook: New Lothrop exited during the Regional a year ago but is back in the Semifinals under Almasy, who also has coached at Mount Morris, Flint Southwestern and Flint Hamady. The Hornets trailed 5-0 in the seventh inning of their Quarterfinal before rallying for a 6-5 win over Standish-Sterling. Six regulars bat at least .400; in addition to the three mentioned above, sophomore second baseman Nic Johnson comes in at .467, freshman right fielder Nathaniel Lane at .440 and senior shortstop Steve Garza at .417.
SCOTTVILLE MASON COUNTY CENTRAL
Record/rank: 28-8, unranked
Coach: Don Thomas, 10th season (216-144)
League finish: Second in West Michigan Conference.
Championship history: Has never played in an MHSAA Final.
Players to watch: Blake Bladzik, sr. CF (.452, 51 RBI, 12 SB); Mitchell Lange, sr. SS (.451, 20 SB, 39 RBI); Spencer Knizacky, sr. C (.447, 51 R, 25 RBI, 25 SB).
Outlook: Mason County Central will play in its first Semifinal after winning its first Regional since 1998. A strong group of seniors fill the middle of the lineup and the top two pitching spots – Trevor Carrier (9-1, 1.92 ERA) and Nolan Asiala (9-1, 2.63 ERA) have seen most of the innings. Junior designated hitter Austin Tyndall (.451) and junior left fielder Cody Soberalski (.444) give the team two more big hitters as they try to add to a 15-game victory streak.
Record/rank: 28-3, No. 1
Coach: Mike Webster, fifth season (105-49-1)
League finish: First in Berrien-Cass-St. Joseph Conference East
Championship history: Division 4 runner-up 2015.
Players to watch: Coletin Gascho, jr. P/3B (.388, 13 SB, 37 R; 12-0, 0.99, 60 K pitching); Jalen Brown, sr. 1B (.424, 30 RBI); Michael Kool, sr. P/3B (.295, 25 R; 11-1, 0.52 ERA, 106 K pitching).
Outlook: The reigning runner-up did its work to get back to MSU with wins over No. 2 Kalamazoo Hackett and No. 5 St. Joseph Lake Michigan Catholic during the earlier rounds and a nine-inning nail-biter against Concord in the Quarterfinal. Kool was the Semifinal winning pitcher a year ago; seven of the team’s top eight hitters from the 2015 championship game are back in the lineup.
GAYLORD ST. MARY
Record/rank: 31-5, No. 8
Coach: Matt Nowicki, 12th season (186-152)
League finish: First in Ski Valley Conference
Championship history: Class D runner-up 1988 and 1989.
Players to watch: Adam Nowicki, sr. SS; Nicholas Torsky, jr. P/IF; Drew Long, soph. P/2B. (Statistics not submitted.)
Outlook: St. Mary is on its longest run since those runner-up finishes at the end of the 1980s, and with only four seniors on the roster. The Snowbirds got past No. 9 Norway in the Quarterfinal and have won 16 straight. The six runs scored Tuesday were their fewest of the tournament; St. Mary had scored 10 or more in eight straight games.
PORTLAND ST. PATRICK
Record/rank: 33-7, unranked
Coach: Bryan Scheurer, 12th season (279-101)
League finish: Second in Central Michigan Athletic Conference
Championship history: Three MHSAA runner-up finishes (most recent 1993).
Players to watch: Travis Moyer, sr. P/3B (.372, 32 RBI; 13-2, 0.60 ERA, 111 K pitching); Brendan Schrauben, jr. C (.425, 7 HR, 50 R, 42 RBI); Garrett Pline, sr. CF (.362, 30 RBI, 22 SB).
Outlook: Portland St. Patrick made its first Semifinals since 2010 with a Quarterfinal win over No. 3-ranked and reigning champion Muskegon Catholic Central, and also beat Fowler 1-0 to open the postseason after losing to the eventual CMAC champ Eagles twice during the regular season. Moyer leads a solid pitching staff that has given up only eight runs over five playoff games and paced the Shamrocks to a school record for wins.
STERLING HEIGHTS PARKWAY CHRISTIAN
Record/rank: 21-11-1, unranked
Coach: Rich Koch, sixth season (101-60-1)
League finish: Second in Michigan Independent Athletic Conference Red
Championship history: Division 4 runner-up 2009
Players to watch: Riley McManus, sr. P/1B/3B; Andrew Manier, sr. P/1B/OF; Pierce Banks, sr. P/SS. (Statistics not submitted.)
Outlook: Parkway prepared for the tournament against a number of bigger schools during the regular season and has outscored its playoff opponents by a combined 49-5 over five games. The team’s top six hitters in the lineup are all seniors, and McManus was an all-stater in 2015 when the team won its second of three straight District titles.
PHOTO: A Traverse City West batter takes a swing during Tuesday's win over Rockford in their Division 1 Quarterfinal. (Click to see more from HighSchoolSportsScene.com.)
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
July 25: After All-American Career, Rockford's Bennett Making Impact as Mat Mentor - Read
July 20: Oakridge 3-Sport Star Potts Applying Lessons to 'Second Chapter' in Sales - Read
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.)