By Geoff Kimmerly
Second Half editor
Two reigning champions will return this weekend to the MHSAA Baseball Finals at Michigan State University.
They’ll be joined at McLane Stadium in part by seven teams seeking their first title in this sport – and with Division 3 guaranteed to offer one of those teams a chance at celebrating the ultimate prize.
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
Grosse Pointe South vs. Midland, 2:30 p.m.
Brownstown Woodhaven vs. Birmingham Brother Rice, 5 p.m.
Orchard Lake St. Mary’s vs. Stevensville Lakeshore, 9 a.m.
Saginaw Swan Valley vs. DeWitt, 11:30 a.m.
Semifinals – Friday
Gladstone vs. Madison Heights Bishop Foley, 2:30 p.m.
Riverview Gabriel Richard vs. Schoolcraft, 5 p.m.
Gaylord St. Mary vs. Beal City, 9 a.m.
Unionville-Sebewaing vs. St. Joseph Lake Michigan Catholic, 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 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, except Gabriel Richard and Woodhaven’s include their Quarterfinals. (Click for links to brackets and scores.)
BIRMINGHAM BROTHER RICE
Record/rank: 31-8, unranked
Coach: Bob Riker, 21st season (578-202)
League finish: First in Detroit Catholic League Central
Championship history: Three MHSAA titles (most recent 2008), three runner-up finishes.
Players to watch: Reese Trahey, sr. CF (.380, 38 RBI, 14 SB); Jack Orlowski, jr. 3B (.407, 14 2B, 31 RBI, 14 SB); Tito Flores, jr. RF (.395, 45 R, 15 2B, 40 RBI, 16 SB); Jack Brockhaus, sr. P (7-1, 1.54 ERA, 4 SV).
Outlook: Brother Rice emerged from the frequently powerful Catholic League Central to earn this first Semifinal trip since finishing runner-up in 2013. The Warriors downed No. 11 Northville in the Quarterfinal and own a recent one-run win over possible championship game opponent Grosse Pointe South. Brockhaus has dominated, and Rice also has junior Tyler Sarkisian (5-0, 2.42 ERA) among others capable on the mound. Senior catcher Gabe Sotres (.345, 9 HR) and senior first baseman Mac Menard (.330) are two more key bats.
Record/rank: 33-5. No. 9
Coach: Corey Farner, fourth season (121-24)
League finish: First in Downriver League
Championship history: Has never played in an MHSAA Final.
Players to watch: Drew Szczepaniak, sr. P/1B (.368, 29 RBI, 9-1 pitching, 1.09 ERA, 113 K); Colin Czajkowski, jr. P/OF (.388, 32 R, 16 2B, 32 RBI, 6-0 pitching, 1.03 ERA, 85 K); Justin Charron, sr. C/P (.450, 10 2B, 21 RBI, 5-1 pitching, 1.00 ERA); Kyle Ray, jr. C/OF/P (.380, 34 R, 10 2B, 25 RBI, 4-1 pitching, 0.00 ERA).
Outlook: This historic run has included Woodhaven’s first Regional title and now first trip to the Semifinals, and the Warriors are loaded for a final push. Szczepaniak will continue his career after this spring at Western Michigan, and Czajkowski will sign with University of Michigan, and they provide an obviously daunting 1-2 pitching punch. Woodhaven has reached this weekend with wins over No. 10 Saline in the Regional Final and then No. 6 Grand Ledge in Tuesday’s Quarterfinal.
GROSSE POINTE SOUTH
Record/rank: 31-12, unranked
Coach: Dan Griesbaum, 35th season (808-436-2)
League finish: Second in Macomb Area Conference Red
Championship history: Division 1 champion 2001, runner-up 2014.
Players to watch: Joe Naporano, sr. C/IF (.389, 13 2B, 29 R, 4-1 pitching, 2.31 ERA); Davis Graham, sr. C/OF (.386, 10 2B, 9 HR, 45 RBI); Drew Maccagnone, jr. IF (.353, 22 RBI); Jacob Hinkle, sr. OF/IF (.355, 11 2B, 44 R, 14 SB).
Outlook: After two seasons away, South will play in its third Semifinal in five seasons. The Blue Devils clearly earned it with wins against No. 2 University Liggett and No. 12 Macomb Dakota along the way. This season’s District title was the 24th over 35 seasons under Griesbaum, who entered this season eighth in MHSAA history for career baseball wins. He has 17 seniors, including seven starting hitters and expected Semifinal pitcher Nathan Budziak (5-1, 2.31 ERA). Senior Cam Shook (6-2, 1.82 ERA) is another reliable thrower.
Record/rank: 30-11, unranked
Coach: Eric Albright, 16th season (416-159)
League finish: Third in Saginaw Valley League.
Championship history: Three MHSAA titles (most recent 1998).
Players to watch: Jeff Landis, jr. P/1B (.429, 11 2B, 30 RBI, 6-2 pitching, 3.16 ERA); Martin Money, sr. IF (.375, 11 2B, 29 RBI, 30 SB); James Harris, jr. C (.370, 36 RBI); Garrett Willis, sr. P/OF (.351, 15 2B, 33 RBI, 10-2 pitching, 0.90 ERA, 74 K).
Outlook: Midland will play its first Semifinal since the Division 1 championship season in 1998, having beaten top-ranked Bay City Western and No. 19 Saginaw Heritage along the way. The Chemics previously were swept by Western and split with Heritage, both in league play, but haven’t given up more than two runs in a postseason game these last three weeks. Money, who made the all-state second team in 2017, is one of six regulars who was hitting at least .337 entering the week, and he, Harris, Landis and Willis all had crossed the plate at least 39 times this season while holding down the first four spots in the lineup.
Record/rank: 27-6, No. 7
Coach: Alan Shankel, ninth season (225-92-3)
League finish: Second in Capital Area Activities Conference Red
Championship history: Two MHSAA titles (most recent 1993), two runner-up finishes.
Players to watch: Nolan Knauf, sr. IF/P (.404, 10 2B, 33 RBI, 4-0 pitching, 0.21 ERA); Mark Connelly, sr. IF (.418, 26 R, 22 RBI); Kade Preston, sr. C/1B (.396, 30 RBI); Logan Simon, jr. OF/P (6-1, 2.39 ERA).
Outlook: The Panthers are back at the Semifinals for the third time in five seasons with a veteran group that also has added to a streak of five straight District titles. DeWitt defeated No. 16 Tecumseh in the Quarterfinal to earn this trip and has won eight of its last 10 games. Three more starters are hitting at least .338, and seniors Josh Robinson (4-1, 2.45 ERA) and Garrett Larner (5-1, 1.98) are two more reliable arms; Robinson made the all-state second team last season.
ORCHARD LAKE ST. MARY’S
Record/rank: 28-12, No. 4
Coach: Matt Petry, eighth season (177-131)
League finish: Second in Detroit Catholic League Central
Championship history: Three MHSAA titles (most recent 2015), three runner-up finishes.
Players to watch: Carter Macias, sr. 3B (.385, 10 2B, 49 R, 16 SB); Blake Bean, sr. CF (.358, 42 RBI); Dillon Kark, jr. IF (.372, 5 HR, 32 RBI); Logan Wood, soph. P (9-2, 2.45 ERA, 110 K).
Outlook: The Eaglets will join Brother Rice at the Semifinals from the Catholic League Central, coming off a fourth straight District title and sixth in seven seasons. St. Mary’s eliminated No. 2 Detroit Country Day during this run and has outscored five playoff opponents by a combined 50-8. Sophomore Anthony Fett (5-1, 2.79 ERA) combines with Wood to give the team a pair of impressive sophomore lefties on the mound, and seven regulars total were hitting at least .308 entering the week.
SAGINAW SWAN VALLEY
Record/rank: 32-8-3, No. 17
Coach: Craig Leddy, first season (32-8-3)
League finish: First in Tri-Valley Conference Central
Championship history: Division 2 champion 2001.
Players to watch: Mitchell Jebb, soph. IF (.438, 46 R, 31 RBI, 23 SB); Victor Mancini, soph. IF (.331, 46 RBI, 11 SB); Avery Goldensoph, fr. P/IF (5-0, 1.51 ERA); Hunter Goldensoph, sr. P/OF (6-1, 1.70 ERA).
Outlook: This will be Swan Valley’s second trip to the Semifinals, joining the 2001 title run. But although the Vikings will graduate five players, the future is bright with two juniors and 10 underclassmen on the roster and many in prominent roles. Senior infielder Cameron Schroeder (.344, 18 SB) and sophomore catcher Easton Goldensoph (.324) are two more key hitters, and Brian Ross (.311, 3-1 pitching) is another strong sophomore. Swan Valley has shut out three of five postseason opponents.
Record/rank: 25-14, No. 12
Coach: Mark Nate, 13th season (334-148-1)
League finish: Second in Southwestern Michigan Athletic Conference West
Championship history: Two MHSAA titles (most recent 2017).
Players to watch: Trey Thibeault, sr. IF (.460, 42 R, 32 SB); Jared Evans, jr. OF/C (.398, 34 R, 35 RBI); Cam Dalrymple, jr. IF (.440, 12 SB); Connor Brawley, sr. OF/P (.402, 37 R, 26 SB, 9-4 pitching, 1.43 ERA).
Outlook: Seven starters are back from the lineup that won last season’s Division 2 championship, and Brawley earned the pitching win in the 2017 Semifinal. He made the all-state second team last season and leads a staff that also includes seniors Joel Brawley (6-1, 2.37 ERA) and Logan Morrow (4-2, 2.41 ERA). Sophomore Oli Carmody (.344) is another returning starter who helps fill out a strong lineup. Lakeshore opened this run by eliminating top-ranked Edwardsburg and also has beaten No. 13 Sturgis during the postseason.
Record/rank: 32-4, No. 6
Coach: Don Lauscher, sixth season (158-49-1)
League finish: Does not play in a conference.
Championship history: Has not played in an MHSAA Final.
Players to watch: Clay Cole, sr. OF/P (.467, 31 R, 4-1 pitching, 2.07 ERA); Braeden Lamberg, sr. IF/C (.351, 37 R, 26 RBI); Cody Frappier, jr. OF (.432, 36 R, 31 RBI); Carson Shea, jr. IF/P (7-1, 1.02 ERA).
Outlook: Gladstone is back for its third Semifinal in five seasons after getting past No. 15 Standish-Sterling and top-ranked Traverse City St. Francis, among others during this postseason. The Braves also return this weekend with their highest win total since the program was restarted six seasons ago. Junior Jared Crow (6-0, 0.82 ERA) is another successful thrower from a strong pitching staff, and he’s also one of seven regulars hitting at least .303.
MADISON HEIGHTS BISHOP FOLEY
Record/rank: 18-17-1, unranked
Coach: Tim McEvoy, 18-17-1
League finish: Third in Detroit Catholic League AA
Championship history: Four MHSAA titles (most recent 2017), one runner-up finish.
Players to watch: Mason Minzey, sr. C; Benjamin Alderson, jr. P/1B; Ethan Hoffman, sr. P/OF. (Statistics not submitted.)
Outlook: Reigning champion Bishop Foley got over .500 by downing No. 4 New Lothrop in Tuesday’s Quarterfinal, and has outscored its five postseason opponents by a combined score of 43-4. Minzey and senior third baseman Evan Ludwick started in last season’s championship game and are among seven seniors. The Ventures have won eight straight games.
RIVERVIEW GABRIEL RICHARD
Record/rank: 26-3, No. 5
Coach: Mike Magier, fifth season (record N/A)
League finish: First in Detroit Catholic League CD
Championship history: Class C runner-up 1994.
Players to watch: Kevin Tuttle, jr. C/IF (.438, 32 R, 32 RBI, 10 SB); Matthew Silka, jr. P/IF (6-0, 0.91 ERA, .311 hitting); David Zubor, soph. OF (.421, 30 R, 27 RBI); Jacob Gosen, jr. OF/P (.489, 44 R, 25 RBI, 4-1 pitching, 1.08 ERA).
Outlook: Gabriel Richard won its second straight Regional title and will play in its first Semifinal since the 1994 run, after also winning its fourth straight league and District titles. The Pioneers defeated No. 14 Michigan Center in the Quarterfinal to advance, and the future is bright as well as the roster is filled by all juniors and sophomores. The team boasts an impressive 1.37 ERA, with juniors Niko Maloney (4-1, 1.57) and Frank Klamerus (4-0, 0.00) and sophomore Cole Atkinson (4-0, 1.52) among others who have had success.
Record/rank: 22-11, unranked
Coach: Larry Phelps, sixth season (151-46)
League finish: Fourth in Southwestern Athletic Conference Valley
Championship history: Has never played in an MHSAA Final.
Players to watch: Jett Gott, fr. P/OF/IF (.413, 31 R, 19 SB); Alex Thole, fr. P/OF/IF (.375, 5-0 pitching, 1.70 ERA); Connor Nutt, jr. P/1B/OF (.362, 11 2B, 4-2 pitching); Marc Shaink, sr. P/3B (.346, 3-3 pitching, 2.56 ERA).
Outlook: Schoolcraft won its third straight Regional title and will play in the Semifinals for the second straight season, but with a much different cast – Shaink is the only returning starter. The Quarterfinal win over No. 20 Buchanan was the team’s 12th straight. Six starters are hitting at least .309, including senior Wyatt Adams (.309, 31 R, 16 SB), and he and Shaink are two of four seniors in the lineup.
Record/rank: 21-8, No. 14
Coach: Steve Pickens, second season (50-18)
League finish: First in Highland Conference
Championship history: Three MHSAA titles (most recent 2010), two runner-up finishes.
Players to watch: Kollin Sharrar, sr. IF (.470, 10 2B, 20 RBI); Brett Upton, sr. P/IF (.415, 37 R, 22 RBI, 8-2 pitching, 0.81 ERA, 107 K); Keegan Haynes, jr. P/IF (.394, 5-2 pitching); Ryan Schafer, sr. P/OF (.368, 34 R, 3-2 pitching, 2.26 ERA).
Outlook: Beal City was Division 4 runner-up in both 2013 and 2014, and this Semifinals will be its first since the latter run. The Aggies didn’t give up a run in the postseason until beating No. 15 Muskegon Catholic Central 9-2 in the Quarterfinal and have outscored their five playoff opponents by a combined 44-2. Juniors Colby Berryhill and Nate Wilson are also among regulars hitting at least .333, Berryhill (.366, 32 R) from the lead-off spot.
GAYLORD ST. MARY
Record/rank: 26-5, No. 4
Coach: Matt Nowicki, 14th season (241-170)
League finish: First in Ski Valley Conference
Championship history: Class D runner-up 1988-89.
Players to watch: Drew Long, sr. P/C (.494, 29 R, 30 RBI); Drew Koenig, soph. P/C (.368, 10 2B, 34 RBI, 11-1 pitching, 1.90 ERA); Brady Hunter, soph. CF (.364, 31 R, 24 SB); Quinn Schultz, fr. 1B/P (.356, 23 RBI, 2-1 pitching, 2.93 ERA).
Outlook: Gaylord St. Mary will play in its third straight Semifinal – and keep an eye out moving forward as well. There are two seniors; the rest of the Snowbirds are freshmen and sophomores. Even then, four starters are back from that 2017 Semifinal, with Long a returning all-state first-team selection. St. Mary eliminated No. 10 Onaway and No. 18 Indian River Inland Lakes on the way back to MSU.
ST. JOSEPH LAKE MICHIGAN CATHOLIC
Record/rank: 27-3, No. 2
Coach: Dale Beeney, third season (82-14)
League finish: First in Berrien-Cass-St. Joseph Conference White
Championship history: Division 4 runner-up 2010.
Players to watch: Matthew Defay, soph. P/IF; Kyle Juza, sr. P/IF; Jacob Kissane, sr. C. (Statistics not submitted.)
Outlook: Lake Michigan Catholic just missed making the Semifinals last season with a one-run Quarterfinal loss, but is back for the first time since the 2010 championship game run. Six seniors anchor the starting lineup, and the team carries a .386 average. The Lakers defeated No. 11 Decatur to win their Regional championship and have given up only five runs over five playoff games – and 1.45 earned runs per game this entire season.
Record/rank: 21-15, unranked
Coach: Tyler Bader, sixth season (115-65-3)
League finish: Fifth in Greater Thumb Conference West.
Championship history: Has never played in an MHSAA Final.
Players to watch: Cooper Kauffold, sr. C (.400, 11 2B, 20 RBI); Jalen Gangler, jr. DH/OF (.356, 19 RBI); Hunter Bohn, sr. SS/P (.330, 23 R, 4-3 pitching, 3.23 ERA); Brendan Prime, sr. P/CF (7-4, 1.56 ERA, 117 K).
Outlook: USA has won three straight Regional titles and will play in a Semifinal for the second straight season, but this one has to be a bit of a surprise as the team was just a game above .500 heading into the tournament. The Patriots eliminated No. 20 Ubly among others over the last three weeks and have navigated the postseason with six starters back from last season – including another top pitcher in senior Devin Riskey (7-6, 3.20 ERA, 80 K), an all-state first-team selection last spring.
PHOTO: Midland's Liam Grady unloads a pitch during Tuesday's Quarterfinal win over Holland West Ottawa. (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."
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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.)