By Geoff Kimmerly
Second Half editor
Michigan State University’s McLane Baseball Stadium will host its first MHSAA Baseball Finals this weekend, and in doing so welcome two reigning champions and two more teams that finished runners-up a year ago.
Bay City Western is back in the Division 1 Semifinals after claiming its first championship in 2013, while Grosse Pointe Woods University Liggett is the reigning Division 4 champ but playing this time in Division 3.
But don’t assume Division 4 belongs now to last season runner-up Beal City; semifinalists Maple City Glen Lake and New Lothrop also are back for the second straight season. Reigning Division 2 runner-up Richmond also is back after making its first championship game a year ago.
For the first time as well, Semifinal play will begin Thursday and continue Friday with all four Finals on Saturday. Below is this weekend's schedule, followed by a look at each contender.
Semifinals – Thursday
Battle Creek Lakeview (32-5) vs. Grosse Pointe South (26-17) - 11:30 a.m.
Clarkston (20-12) vs. Bay City Western (36-7) - 5 p.m.
DeWitt (23-10) vs. Richmond (34-3) - 9 a.m.
Mount Pleasant (30-8-1) vs. Richland Gull Lake (30-9) - 2:30 p.m.
Semifinals – Friday
Gladstone (29-4) vs. Decatur (23-6) - 2:30 p.m.
Reese (28-7-1) vs. Grosse Pointe Woods University Liggett (23-8) - 5 p.m.
Beal City (35-3) vs. Kalamazoo Christian (18-17) - 9 a.m.
New Lothrop (32-6) vs. Maple City Glen Lake (31-2-1) - 11:30 a.m.
Finals – Saturday
Division 1 - 11:30 am
Division 2 - 9 am
Division 3 - 5 pm
Division 4 - 2:30 pm
Tickets cost $7 per round or $15 for an all-tournament ticket that includes admission to baseball games. 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.
All statistics below are through at least the regular season, with most through teams' Regionals or Quarterfinals. (Click for links to brackets and scores.)
BAY CITY WESTERN
Record/rank: 36-7, No. 4
Coach: Tim McDonald, 22nd season (600-205-7)
League finish: First in Saginaw Valley Association North
Championship history: Division 1 champion 2013.
Players to watch: Justin Gorr, sr. P/1B (.427, 12 2B, 42 RBI); Carson Eby, jr. C/IF (.395, 10 2B, 41 RBI); Jason Clark, soph. P/2B (9-2, 1.22 ERA, .318, 42 R); Scott Badour, sr. P/OF (9-2, 0.71 ERA).
Outlook: A senior-heavy team won Western’s first MHSAA title a year ago, but the Warriors are back in the Semifinals despite graduating four who earned all-state recognition. The pitching has been stellar (19 shutouts), especially during the tournament – Western has given up only one run in five playoff games, to Midland in the District opener. Juniors Tony Robbins and Aaron Rodriguez and sophomore Brandon Wise join Clark and Badour with at least four wins each and ERAs of 2.12 or lower.
BATTLE CREEK LAKEVIEW
Record/rank: 32-5, unranked
Coach: Jeff Sovern, 10th season (245-94)
League finish: First in Southwest Michigan Athletic Conference East
Championship history: Three MHSAA titles (most recent 2006), two runner-up finishes.
Players to watch: Travis Snyder, soph. C (.420, 32 RBI); Nick Jones, soph. 3B/C (.405, 34 R, 29 RBI); Jacob Herbers, jr. P/1B (.411, 40 R, 11 2B, 8-0, 1.02 ERA); Jake Bivens, sr. SS (.409, 42 R, 10 2B, 29 RBI).
Outlook: Lakeview will add to a solid baseball tradition with its first Semifinal appearance since the last championship run in 2006. And only three starters are seniors – although Bivens is a big-time contributor and made the all-state first team in 2013. The young Spartans have shown plenty of poise during a tournament run that has included one and two-run wins over traditional powers Grand Ledge and Howell, respectively, and a 9-5 Quarterfinal victory over No. 5 Saline.
Record/rank: 20-12, unranked
Co-coaches: Phil Price, 16th season (325-175)
League finish: Third in Oakland Activities Association Red
Championship history: Class A champion 1976.
Players to watch: David Steward, sr. P; Ryan Rea, sr. P; Nathan Witt, sr. P (Stats not submitted.). Outlook: Clarkston is making its third Semifinals appearance and first since 2002 and is giving up an average of only two runs per game during the tournament. Witt has signed with Michigan State University and could get the chance to throw in his future home park.
GROSSE POINTE SOUTH
Record/rank: 26-17, unranked
Coach: Dan Griesbaum, 31st season (707-359-1)
League finish: First in Macomb Area Conference Red
Championship history: Division 1 champion 2001.
Players to watch: Andrew Eaton, sr. 1B/P; Richard Kish, sr. P/IF; James Menchl, sr. P/IF (Stats not submitted.).
Outlook: Grosse Pointe South has won seven straight District championships but is back in the Semifinals for the first time since 2005. The Blue Devils upset top-ranked Sterling Heights Stevenson 2-0 in the Quarterfinal to advance, and have allowed only two runs during the MHSAA tournament – both to Detroit U-D Jesuit in the Regional Final.
Record/rank: 23-10, unranked
Coach: Alan Shankel, fifth season (108-58)
League finish: Third in Capital Area Activities Conference Red
Championship history: Two MHSAA titles (most recent 1993), two runner-up finishes.
Players to watch: Sam Smith, sr. 1B/P (.441, 27 RBI, 5-2); John-Michael Moody, sr. C (.386, 32 RBI); Keaton Sackett, jr. SS (.394, 36 R, 13 SB); Justin Stygles, sr. RF (.352, 33 R, 35 RBI, 12 2B).
Outlook: DeWitt started this season hot, cooled off for a bit, but warmed back up in time to make the Semifinals for the first time since 2003 and eliminate No. 3 Portland along the way. Moody was an all-state second-teamer last season and is one of 10 seniors who helped the Panthers to their first Regional title since 2009. DeWitt can rely on a number of contributors including seven pitchers with at least one win this spring.
Record/rank: 30-8-1, unranked
Coach: Luke Epple, 21st season (613-166)
League finish: Second in Saginaw Valley Association North
Championship history: Two MHSAA titles (most recent 2007), two runner-up finishes.
Players to watch: Zach Heeke, soph. 3B (.410, 34 R, 32 RBI, 12 2B, 22 SB); Hunter Buczkowski, soph. P (7-2, 1.23 ERA, 92 K); Dean Marais, sr. LF (.362, 34 RBI); Aaron Leasher, sr. CF/P (8-3, 1.27 ERA, 114 K, .329).
Outlook: Mount Pleasant’s run over the last decade is incredible – eight District titles, seven Regional championships, now six trips to the Semifinals and an MHSAA title in 2007 and runner-up finish in 2008. Unranked this time around, the Oilers eliminated No. 5 Bay City John Glenn along the way and has given up only four runs total in six tournament games.
RICHLAND GULL LAKE
Record/rank: 30-9, No. 4
Coach: Bill Blakely, 22nd season (489-246)
League finish: Second in Southwest Michigan Athletic Conference East
Championship history: Has never played in an MHSAA Final.
Players to watch: Nick Miller, sr. CF/P (43 R, 12 SB, 11 2B, 4-1, 1.75 ERA); Drew Blakely, soph. C/P (.478, 35 RBI); Walter Graf, sr. P/2B (8-2, 1.95 ERA, .396, 48 R, 24 RBI, 12 2B, 17 SB); Jarod Burton, jr. 1B (.356, 29 R, 16 2B, 49 RBI).
Outlook: Gull Lake has been on the verge of playing in its first championship game, with this its third Semifinal in 11 seasons after also making it this far just three seasons ago. The Blue Devils have won nine District and nine league titles as well over the last 11 seasons. Sophomore Caleb Scoles (6-0, 1.66 ERA) will provide another key arm if Gull Lake is in need this weekend.
Record/rank: 34-3, No. 10
Coach: Scott Evans, third season (91-19)
League finish: First in Blue Water Area Conference
Championship history: Division 2 runner-up 2013.
Players to watch: Evan Kratt, jr. C (.449, 29 R, 29 RBI); Austin Harvey, sr. 3B (.475, 51 R, 11 2B, 33 RBI, 45 SB); Ryan Boyd, sr. SS (.367, 39 R, 35 RBI, 35 SB); Zach Leach, sr. P/RF (10-1, 1.22 ERA, .538, 52 R, 45 RBI, 28 SB); Dillon McInerney, jr. P/1B (12-0, 1.00, .348, 10 2B, 37 RBI); Dustin Leach, sr. CF (.441, 44 R, 42 SB).
Outlook: Richmond has won 31 straight since opening 2-3 and after last season’s longest-ever tournament run. Six starters are back from last season’s championship game lineup, and Zach Leach and Boyd were all-state second-teamers. The Blue Devils are a catcher’s nightmare – their 204 stolen bases entering the week rank third in MHSAA history for one season, and Richmond has been caught only 11 times.
Record/rank: 23-6, No. 7
Coach: Ben Botti, 20th season (427-191-1)
League finish: Second in Southwestern Athletic Conference South
Championship history: Four MHSAA titles (most recent 2012), one runner-up finish.
Players to watch: Cody Huston, jr. 3B/P (7-0, 1.20 ERA, .333); Cole Southworth, jr. C (.387); Joby Kawaski, jr. P/1B (.418, 44 R, 22 RBI, 15 SB, 7-0, 2.16, 92 K); Matthew Botti, jr. P/SS (.403, 24 R, 29 RBI, 10 2B, 3-1, 1.62 ERA), Carter Smith, soph. 2B (.372, 31 R, 16 SB).
Outlook: Decatur will look to add a Division 3 title to the four it’s earned in Division 4 over the last 15 seasons under Ben Botti. The Raiders made the Quarterfinals for the third straight season and haven’t missed a beat since moving into their new division this spring, eliminating No. 9 Watervliet during this tournament run. The experience will no doubt prove valuable, as the team has only five seniors – and starts only one.
Record/rank: 29-4, No. 3
Coach: Don Lauscher, second season (47-14)
League finish: Does not play in a league.
Championship history: Has never played in an MHSAA Final.
Players to watch: Justin Jurek, jr. DH (.381, 42 R, 37 RBI); Jake Peterson, jr. RF/P (.351, 30 R, 7-0, 2.87 ERA); Sam Pouliot, sr. IF/P/C (7-1, 1.17 ERA); Hunter Garling, soph. C (.486, 35 R, 12 2B, 27 RBI, 3-2, 1.18 ERA).
Outlook: There are only about 20 baseball programs in the Upper Peninsula during a given season, and Gladstone brought its back last season after not having a team since 1959. The Braves caught up quickly and have only one in-state loss this season, to much larger Marquette. The program was able to take off in part because the community has a strong summer American Legion tradition, but this team is still young with only four seniors and the rest picking up valuable experience.
GROSSE POINTE WOODS UNIVERSITY LIGGETT
Record/rank: 23-8, unranked
Coach: Dan Cimini, 11th season (300-63)
League finish: Second in Michigan Independent Athletic Conference Blue
Championship history: Three MHSAA titles (most recent 2013 in Division 4), two runner-up finishes.
Players to watch: Nicholas Azar, jr. SS (.400, 30 RBI, 15 2B, 10 SB); Anthony Simon, sr. P/IF (.400, 11 SB); Gehrig Anglin, fr. P/IF (11-2, 1.16 ERA, .386); Adam Fiema, sr. P/CF (6-3, 2.14 ERA, .457, 27 R, 13 2B, 23 SB).
Outlook: University Liggett graduated three all-staters and moved to Division 3 this season after winning two of the last three Division 4 championships, but have been similarly impressive. Azar also was a Division 4 all-stater in 2013 and with Fiema is one of five senior starters. Despite entering unranked, University Liggett knocked out No. 1 Madison Heights Bishop Foley in the Regional Final and No. 10 Clinton on Tuesday.
Record/rank: 28-7-1, unranked
Coach: Dave Elliott, 19th season (418-197-4)
League finish: First in Greater Thumb Conference West
Championship history: Has never played in an MHSAA Final.
Players to watch: Frank McKenzie, sr. 2B (.329, 25 R, 24 RBI, 12 SB); Cody Peyok, sr. CF (.410, 33 R, 30 RBI, 10 2B, 19 SB, 8-2, 1.92); Matt Sahr, sr. P (.337, 26 R, 26 RBI, 15 SB, 9-1, 0.32, 79 K); Tony Bentley, sr. LF (.351, 32 R, 276 RBI, 11 2B, 15 SB).
Outlook: This is Reese’s second Semifinal appearance; the Rockets also advance this far in 1997 and reached the Quarterfinals in 2001. They’ve given up only two runs total in five tournament games and are riding a 16-game winning streak. Reese was swept by Pinconning 7-6 and 20-1 early this season before avenging those with a 5-1 Quarterfinal win Tuesday. The team has eight seniors, including the top six hitters in the starting lineup and two winningest pitchers.
Record/rank: 35-3, No. 2
Coaches: Brad Antcliff, eighth season (259-42-3)
League finish: First in Highland Conference
Championship history: Three MHSAA championships (most recent 2010), one runner-up finish.
Players to watch: Ty Rollin, sr. SS/P; Chase Rollin, soph. RF (Stats not submitted.).
Outlook: Beal City finished runner-up in 2013 and is in the Semifinals for the fifth time in six seasons. Top pitcher Ty Rollin was an all-stater last season and is one of seven starters back from last season’s championship game lineup; he gave up only six hits as Beal City lost to University Liggett 3-2. The Aggies knocked out top-ranked Muskegon Catholic Central in the Regional Final to highlight this run.
Record/rank: 18-17, unranked
Coach: Steve Bennecke, second season (34-30)
League finish: Sixth in Kalamazoo Valley Association
Championship history: Has never played in an MHSAA Final.
Players to watch: Stephen Niewoonder, jr. P/1B/LF (.351, 22 R, 14 SB, 5-3); Alex Visser, fr. 2B (.385); Justin Richardson, sr. P/OF (7-3, 2.10 ERA); Greg Harris, jr. RF (.352, 10 SB).
Outlook: Kalamazoo Christian has won District titles in both seasons under Bennecke and made the Semifinals as recently as 2009, but has to be the surprise of this tournament after opening this season 5-10. The team has only four seniors and only two who start, but also two standout freshman starters among those gaining valuable experience for potential runs to come.
MAPLE CITY GLEN LAKE
Record/rank: 31-2-1, No. 3
Coach: Kris Herman, 11th season (223-166-5)
League finish: First in Northwest Conference
Championship history: Class D runner-up 1984.
Players to watch: Austin Odziana, jr. 1B (.422, 36 RBI, 10 2B); Thomas Waning, sr. P (12-1, 0.72 ERA,165 K, .360, 47 R, 10 2B); Travis Moore, soph. 3B (.494, 43 RBI, 12 2B); Trevor Apsey, sr. C (.518, 37 R, 38 RBI, 13 2B, 18 SB), Tristan Williams, sr. SS (.442, 48 R, 24 SB. 12 2B); Zach Cooper, soph. LF/P (13-0, 0.97 ERA, 79 K).
Outlook: Glen Lake has returned to the Semifinals for the second straight year while keyed by many of the same players as last season, including all-state first-teamer Odziana and second-teamer Apsey. Its only losses were to rivals Suttons Bay and Bellaire, and Glen Lake then beat both during the tournament while outscoring its postseason opponents by a total of 40-14.
Record/rank: 32-6, No. 5
Coach: Keith Villano, fourth season (112-25-2)
League finish: First in Genesee Area Conference Blue
Championship history: Has never played in an MHSAA Final.
Players to watch: Quentin Taylor, soph. OF/P; Grant Steinborn, jr. 1B/P; Kyle Chappelle, sr. 3B (Stats not submitted.).
Outlook: New Lothrop has risen from Quarterfinalist in 2012 to Semifinalist in 2013 and hopes to take the next step this weekend into its first championship game. Steinborn was an all-state second-teamer last season and leads a staff that should give the Hornets a solid chance. New Lothrop eliminated No. 8 Potterville and No. 6 Sterling Heights Parkway Christian during this tournament run.
PHOTO: Maple City Glen Lake catcher Trevor Apsey waits for the throw home as Beal City’s Ryan Tilmann slides under just in time to score in a 2013 Division 4 Semifinal.
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.)