By Geoff Kimmerly
Second Half editor
While it’s an obvious statement this spring’s 16 MHSAA baseball semifinalists have peaked at the right time, it might mean a little more this weekend at Michigan State University’s McLane Baseball Stadium.
Five teams – including half the final fields in Divisions 1 and 2 – were unranked at the start of Districts. The fifth team, Saginaw Nouvel, is riding one of the most impressive playoff streaks in any division despite entering the playoffs below .500.
Meanwhile, seven teams are playing for their first championships this weekend – including the highest-ranked remaining in three divisions.
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
Macomb Dakota vs. Rockford, 9 a.m.
Portage Northern vs. Bloomfield Hills Brother Rice, 11:30 a.m.
Orchard Lake St. Mary’s vs. Muskegon Oakridge, 2:30 p.m.
Grand Rapids Catholic Central vs. Trenton, 5 p.m.
Semifinals – Friday
Pewamo-Westphalia vs. Homer, 9 a.m.
Grosse Pointe Woods University Liggett vs. Gladstone, 11:30 a.m.
Petersburg Summerfield vs. Gaylord St. Mary, 2:30 p.m.
Saginaw Nouvel vs. Decatur, 5 p.m.
Finals – Saturday
Division 1: 9 a.m.
Division 2: 11:30 a.m.
Division 3: 2:30 p.m.
Division 4: 5 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 for links to brackets, scores and a parking map.
BLOOMFIELD HILLS BROTHER RICE
Record/rank: 25-12, unranked
Coach: Bob Riker, 22nd season (603-215)
League finish: Third in Detroit Catholic League Central
Championship history: Three MHSAA titles (most recent 2008), three runner-up finishes.
Players to watch: Tito Flores, sr. OF/1B/P (.368, 44 R, 6 HR, 28 RBI, 26 SB); Sterling Hallman sr. IF/P (.330, 5 HR, 34 RBI); Jack Orlowski, sr. 3B/P/DH (.321, 11 2B, 6 HR, 34 RBI); Tyler Sarkisian, sr. P/OF/IF (3-1, 1.54 ERA, 63 K/50 IP).
Outlook: Brother Rice opened this season ranked No. 1 by the coaches association after making the Semifinals a year ago, but fell out of the list with a 7-7 start. The Warriors have won eight straight, with a District Final victory over No. 8 Birmingham Seaholm and Regional Final win over No. 5 Romeo among postseason highlights. Flores made the all-state second team last season and leads off a lineup that begins with four seniors and ends with five underclassmen. He will continue his career at University of Michigan, and Sarkisian will play at University of Chicago.
Record/rank: 21-16-1, unranked
Coach: Gerald Carley, ninth season (208-99-1)
League finish: Fifth in Macomb Area Conference Red
Championship history: Has not appeared in an MHSAA Final.
Players to watch: Greg Guzik, soph. IF (.359, 25 R, 19 RBI, 11 SB); John Sovey, sr. IF/P (.324 20 R, 5-3 pitching, 2.60 ERA, 50 K/51 IP); Andrew Wouters jr. OF (.315, 25 R), Mike Biebuyck, sr. P (5-4, 2.60 ERA).
Outlook: Dakota is another team that was ranked early – the Cougars have regular-season wins against Brother Rice and Romeo to their credit – but also played in a league with three teams ranked among the top 17 in Division 1 heading into Districts. They got past a big obstacle with reigning Division 1 champ Grosse Pointe South in the Super Regional Final – GPS beat Dakota three times during this regular season and also in last year’s Quarterfinal matchup. This will be Dakota’s first trip to the Semifinals and comes as the team is riding an 8-2-1 wave.
Record/rank: 37-7, No. 2
Coach: Chris Andrews, 19th season (492-208)
League finish: Second in Southwestern Michigan Athletic Conference West
Championship history: Division 1 runner-up 2015.
Players to watch: Zach Quinn, sr. OF/P (.434, 44 R, 36 RBI, 13 SB, 2-0 pitching, 0.82 ERA); Nolan McCarthy, jr. SS/P (.430, 45 R, 13 2B, 48 RBI, 16 SB); Cam French, sr. P/1B (10-0, 1.26 ERA, 49 K/61 IP, .301, 23 RBI); Tyler Helgeson, sr. OF/P (.355, 50 R, 30 SB, 27 RBI, 4-3 pitching, 2.12 ERA, 40 K/33 IP).
Outlook: Portage Northern emerged from a Super Regional that included top-ranked Brownstown-Woodhaven, No. 15 Saline and No. 18 Grand Ledge and has won 22 of its last 23 games. The lineup is junior heavy and loaded with hitters: juniors Greg Lapetina (.390, 42 R, 31 RBI, 13 SB), Gannon Andrews (.402), Jack Beffel (.441), Parker Brey (.387, 37 RBI) and Malcolm Gaynor (.344) also stick out as the team hits .373 as a whole. Sophomore Xander Morris (9-0, 1.44) gives Northern another ace as well. Helgeson will continue his career at Eastern Michigan University.
Record/rank: 27-9, No. 10
Coach: Matt Vriesenga, fifth season (124-50)
League finish: First in Ottawa-Kent Conference Red
Championship history: Division 1 champion 2011.
Players to watch: Joe Kelley, sr. OF (.409, 34 R, 10 2B, 10 HR, 43 RBI); Alex Miller, sr. OF (.371, 18 R, 13 SB); Zach Schamp, sr. OF (.324, 34 R, 21 RBI); Zach Marshall, sr. P/OF (.318, 8-4 pitching, 2.25 ERA, 83 K/62 1/3 IP).
Outlook: The Rams will play in the Semifinals for the first time since that championship season in 2011, and Vriesenga previously led Grand Rapids Christian to a Division 2 runner-up finish in 2005. Rockford has won 12 of its last 13 games since a regular-season defeat to Byron Center, which it avenged in the Regional Final. Kelley is an incredible story – as reported by the Grand Rapids Press, he broke the school’s home run record this season after being cut as a junior. He’s one of six seniors in the starting lineup, and senior Grant Martin (6-1, 1.36) is the team’s second-winningest pitcher. Sophomore Luke McLean (5-1, 2.06) is another important arm.
GRAND RAPIDS CATHOLIC CENTRAL
Record/rank: 26-10, unranked
Coach: Tim MacKinnon, third season (54-43)
League finish: Second in O-K Blue
Championship history: Class B champion 1985, two runner-up finishes.
Players to watch: Myles Beale, jr. SS/P (.330, 42 R, 10 2B, 30 RBI, 41 SB); Joe Collins, sr. P/3B (.420, 6-3 pitching, 1.08 ERA, 50 K/51 2/3 IP); Ben Joppich, sr. P/OF (8-1, 0.73 ERA, 75 K/67 IP); Kyle Tepper, jr. CF/P (.378, 29 R, 15 SB, 2-1 pitching, 2.63 ERA).
Outlook: GRCC owns a 28-7 combined margin of victory over five postseason games including wins over No. 3 East Grand Rapids, No. 4 Holland Christian and reigning Division 2 champion Stevensville Lakeshore in the Super Regional Final. MacKinnon, who previously coached East Kentwood from 2005-15 and overall has a 256-186-2 record, took this program from 13-18 his first season to two wins from the title in his third. Senior Jack Nawrocki is another big contributor, hitting .342 from the clean-up spot and going 6-1 with a 2.19 ERA on the mound, and junior Zach Grabowski (.407) and senior Luke Passinault (.330, 10 2B) are two more key bats in the middle of the lineup.
Record/rank: 26-7, unranked
Coach: Brandon Barry, 27th season (499-286)
League finish: First in West Michigan Conference
Championship history: Has never played in an MHSAA Final.
Players to watch: Koleman Wall, sr. P/SS (.461, 30 R 13 2B, 30 RBI, 8-2 pitching, 1.07 ERA, 129 K/73 IP); Ethan Miller, soph P/1B (.375, 6-1 pitching, 1.06 ERA, 43 K/41 2/3 IP); Kolbe Stewart, jr. LF (.347, 25 RBI, 18 SB); TJ Ruel, sr. P/1B (5-0, 2.15 ERA, 55 K/40 1/3 IP).
Outlook: Oakridge won its fifth Regional title this decade and will play in the Semifinals for the first time since 2011 after beating No. 10 Essexville Garber in the Super Regional Final. Wall came back from injury to shine in that game and has had an all-around stellar season, while Ruel was an all-state pitcher as a junior and with Miller provides intriguing options should Oakridge advance to Saturday. Junior shortstop Austin Fairchild has seen the mound in 10 games, and with a 0.23 ERA also could provide some solid help during the final weekend.
ORCHARD LAKE ST. MARY’S
Record/rank: 32-9-2, No. 2
Coach: Matt Petry, ninth season (181-128-2)
League finish: First in Detroit Catholic League Central
Championship history: Three MHSAA titles (most recent 2015), three runner-up finishes.
Players to watch: Dillon Kark, sr. IF (.352, 33 R, 26 RBI); Alex Mooney, soph. IF (.444, 48 R, 15 2B, 42 RBI, 21 SB); Logan Wood, jr. P (9-0, 1.16 ERA 128 K/72 2/3 IP); Nolan Schubart, fr. OF (.393, 25 R, 13 2B, 42 RBI).
Outlook: St. Mary’s finished Division 2 runner-up in 2015 and made the Semifinals a year ago, and has the pitching in particular to take on anyone this weekend. Wood was an all-state first-team selection a year ago, and he’s joined by freshman Brock Porter (8-2, 1.20 ERA, 78 K) and juniors Anthony Fett (6-3, 1.53 ERA, 79 K) and Mikey Gall (4-2, 2.43 ERA) on a strong staff. Kark also was an all-state first-team selection last season and is one of six regulars hitting at least .323. Senior Harrison Poeszat (.323, 32 R, 30 RBI) and freshman Jack Crighton (.379, 10 2B) with Schubart fill out the middle of the lineup.
Record/rank: 32-9, No. 15
Coach: Todd Szalka, 12th season (283-157-1)
League finish: Second in Downriver League
Championship history: Class B champion 1994.
Players to watch: Adam Wilding, jr. P/IF (.458, 43 R, 25 2B, 38 RBI, 22 SB, 5-2 pitching, 2.77 ERA); Jay Solano, sr. P/IF (.427, 33 R, 11 2B, 27 RBI, 12 SB, 4-1 pitching, 2.00 ERA); Kyle Richey jr. P/1B (10-3, 1.09 ERA, 92 K/71 IP); Gabe Cavazos, jr. P/OF (.425, 32 R, 31 RBI).
Outlook: Trenton is playing in its first Semifinal since 2001 and riding a 10-game winning streak. Another reason for excitement is this team has only three seniors – but makes up for any tournament inexperience with assistants Gary Szalka and Bob Jones, who have a combined 90 years of coaching experience in varsity baseball; Szalka ranks 20th all-time with 648 wins from his 37 seasons at Melvindale (1971-2009). Trenton finished second in its league only to Division 1 top-ranked Brownstown Woodhaven. Junior Brenden Donovan (.387, 41 R) and sophomore pitcher Micah Ottenbreit (8-1, 1.32 ERA, 83 K) are others who are likely to play big roles this weekend.
Record/rank: 29-7, No. 13
Coach: Kelly Shea, first season (29-7)
League finish: First in Great Northern Conference
Championship history: Has never played in an MHSAA Final.
Players to watch: Carson Shea, sr. P (.429, 22 SB, 10-1 pitching, 0.63 ERA); Cooper Cavadeas, sr. C (.378, 23 RBI); Cody Frappier, sr. RF (.382, 30 R, 29 RBI); Daniel Martin, sr. DH (.347, 36 R, 28 RBI, 25 SB).
Outlook: Gladstone is back at the Semifinals for the second straight season and fifth time in six years. The Braves have won 13 of their last 14 games and advanced with a Super Regional Final victory over No. 7 Beaverton. Frappier and Carson Shea were among key cogs on last season’s Semifinals team as well, and junior shortstop Zach Hanson (.346, 19 SB) is another impact bat from the lead-off spot and also is 4-1 on the mound. Kelly Shea formerly coached the junior varsity and as a varsity assistant before taking over the program this spring.
GROSSE POINTE WOODS UNIVERSITY LIGGETT
Record/rank: 23-9, No. 4
Coach: Dan Cimini, 16th season (438-99)
League finish: First in Detroit Catholic League AA
Championship history: Five MHSAA titles (most recent 2016), two runner-up finishes.
Players to watch: Billy Kopicki, sr. SS/P (.411, 25 R, 15 2B, 24 RBI, 16 SB, 2-1 pitching, 2.10 ERA); Alec Azar, sr. P (.357, 11-3 pitching, 1.46 ERA, 104 K/91 IP); Logan King, sr. P/OF (.365, 17 2B, 28 RBI, 6-2 pitching, 2.42 ERA, 73 K/63 2/3 IP); Drew Zelenak, jr. P/OF (.325, 19 RBI).
Outlook: After two seasons playing in Division 1, Liggett is back in Division 3 and a contender for its fifth championship this decade after winning Division 3 in 2014 and 2016 and Division 4 in 2011 and 2013. Azar was an all-state first-team selection in Division 1 last season and this spring one of just five seniors – although all five start. Four losses were to teams either ranked in Division 1 at the end of the regular season or playing in the Semifinals on Thursday, and Liggett has wins over Brother Rice, Portage Northern and Grosse Pointe South among other larger programs. Kopicki will continue his career at Miami University at Ohio.
Record/rank: 31-3, No. 6
Coach: Scott Salow, 19th season (559-128)
League finish: Second in Big 8 Conference
Championship history: Two MHSAA titles (most recent 2006), two runner-up finishes.
Players to watch: Zach Butters, sr. P/UTY (. 419, 36 R, 10 2B, 41 RBI, 10 SB, 9-1 pitching, 1.16 ERA, 75 K/60 1/3 IP); TJ VanderKuyl, jr. SS/P (.377, 38 R, 21 RBI, 23 SB, 5-1 pitching, 2.00 ERA); Jacob Wilson, jr. P/OF (.393, 36 R, 19 RBI, 10-1 pitching, 0.82 ERA, 103 K/59 2/3 IP); Kyle Compton, sr. 2B (.449, 38 R, 25 RBI, 10 SB).
Outlook: Homer will follow its third Quarterfinal this decade with its first trip back to the Semifinals since 2006. The Trojans have earned their way with their last three wins over No. 5 Ann Arbor Greenhills, No. 12 Michigan Center and No. 16 Blissfield, and they beat Division 2 No. 6 Edwardsburg during the regular season. Butters made the all-state second team as a pitcher last season, and six pitchers total have at least one win for Homer this spring. Nine regulars are hitting .323 or better; seniors Seth Deigert (.364, 40 RBI) and Gabe Farmer (.356, 34 RBI) and sophomore Damaso LeBron (.351, 40 R) also are main run producers.
Record/rank: 31-2, No. 1
Coach: Mark Rademacher, 35th season (554-325)
League finish: Tied for first in Central Michigan Athletic Conference
Championship history: Class C runner-up 1991.
Players to watch: Anthony Pohl, sr. C (.376, 28 RBI); Brendan Thelen, sr. P/OF (.381, 36 R, 19 SB, 14-0 pitching, 0.73 ERA, 101 K/77 IP); Keegan Smith, jr. P/IF (.410, 29 R, 25 RBI); Tanner Wirth, fr. OF (.441, 35 R, 31 RBI, 18 SB).
Outlook: Pewamo-Westphalia has followed its first Regional title since 1991 with its first trip to the Semifinals since that runner-up season and built its highest win total in Rademacher’s 35 seasons leading the program. The Pirates shared their league title with Portland St. Patrick, top-ranked in Division 4 at the end of the regular season, and their only losses were to the Shamrocks and Division 1-ranked Grand Ledge. Junior shortstop Ethan Thelen is another significant contributor, hitting .351 from the fifth spot, and junior third baseman Ethan Smith is hitting .329 from clean-up and is 11-1 with a 1.55 ERA on the mound.
Record/rank: 32-6, No. 5
Coach: Ben Botti, 25th season (543-241-1)
League finish: First in Southwest 10 Conference
Championship history: Four MHSAA titles (most recent 2012), two runner-up finishes.
Players to watch: Jakob Southworth, sr. P/1B (.438, 38 R, 11 2B, 27 RBI, 17 SB, 12-1 pitching, 0.93 ERA, 103 K/67 2/3 IP); Travis Hunsberger, sr. P/OF (.301, 33 R, 25 RBI, 14 SB, 8-3 pitching, 1.47 ERA, 79 K/57 IP); Benjamin Cerven, jr. 2B (.388, 46 R, 11 2B, 24 RBI, 28 SB, 3-0 pitching, 0.00 ERA); Justin Gale, sr. IF/P (.410, 29 R, 13 2B, 43 RBI, 16 SB, 1-0 pitching, 0.68 ERA).
Outlook: Decatur will play in its first Semifinals since finishing Division 3 runner-up in 2014, and this team has made significant strides with the program’s first league title since 2016 while continuing a District streak that now stretches nine seasons. The Raiders have won 17 straight games, with postseason victories over No. 12 Kalamazoo Christian, No. 14 Three Oaks River Valley and No. 18 Colon highlighting the run. The team has only four seniors, but they are high-impact – in addition to Hunsberger, Southworth and Gale mentioned above, shortstop Garrett Smith is hitting .354 from the nine spot in the lineup, another of eight regulars at .300 or higher from the plate.
GAYLORD ST. MARY
Record/rank: 26-5, No. 7
Coach: Matt Nowicki, 15th season (268-171)
League finish: First in Ski Valley Conference
Championship history: Class D runner-up 1988 and 1989.
Players to watch: Drew Koenig, jr. P/C (.400, 10 2B, 37 RBI, 11-4 pitching, 2.56 ERA, 95 K/71 IP); Brady Hunter, jr. CF (.427, 47 R, 10 2B, 33 RBI, 25 SB, 3-0 pitching, 1.88 ERA); Andrew Zielinski, jr. 3B (.356, 39 R, 25 RBI, 14 SB, 2-0 pitching, 1.57 ERA); Alex Pudvan, jr. 1B (.356, 35 RBI).
Outlook: St. Mary is making its fourth straight trip to the Semifinals. This team is led in part by Koenig, an all-state first-team selection as a pitcher last spring, and junior Joseph Moeggenberg (9-0, 1.48 ERA) could take the mound Saturday if the Snowbirds reach their first Final. St. Mary has scored double-digit runs in 13 games this season, including four of five during the playoffs and 14 runs against No. 16 Norway in the Super Regional Final. Moeggenberg (.347) and junior shortstop Steven Koscielniak (.330, 33 R) are two more run producers for a team hitting .335 as a whole.
Record/rank: 26-4, No. 3
Coach: Travis Pant, fifth season (87-69)
League finish: First in Tri-County Conference
Championship history: Has never played in an MHSAA Final.
Players to watch: Derek Clark, jr. P/OF (.494, 44 R, 52 SB, 12-0 pitching, 0.22 ERA, 105 K/63 IP); Ethan Eyler, soph. RF (.418, 31 R, 37 RBI, 18 SB), Mark Keller, sr. 1B/P (.415, 34 R, 11 2B, 26 RBI, 10 SB); Brendan Dafoe, jr. SS (.402, 32 R, 18 SB).
Outlook: Summerfield took a step from last season’s Quarterfinal loss to make the Semifinals for the first time this spring, in part on the strength of a pitching staff led by Clark but also including sophomore Brock Olmstead (6-1, 0.76 ERA) and junior Brandon Tyler (4-0, 0.48 ERA). Clark made the all-state first team last season, and Dafoe made the second. They help drive an offense that has outscored its six postseason opponents by a combined 75-2 – including an 11-0 win over No. 15 Marine City Cardinal Mooney in the Super Regional Final. What’s more, Keller is the team’s only senior starter.
Record/rank: 14-16-1, unranked
Coach: Shawn Larson, second season (33-26-1)
League finish: Sixth in Tri-Valley Conference West
Championship history: Four MHSAA titles (most recent 2005), two runner-up finishes.
Players to watch: Justin Osmond, jr. IF (.418, 25 R, 27 SB); Brady Alverson, soph. IF/P (.378, 24 R, 11 2B, 27 RBI); Harrison Dwan, jr. CF/P (.344, 30 R, 36 SB), Jacob Burr, sr. P/IF (3.16 ERA).
Outlook: Nouvel has been in the mix plenty over the years, most recently making the Semifinals in 2012 in Division 3. However, this has been an incredible run. Nouvel so far this tournament has eliminated No. 8 and reigning champ Beal City, No. 11 Marlette and No. 19 Bay City All Saints, a memorable send-off for five seniors who all play significant roles and important experience for a team that should return its top hitters in 2020.
PHOTO: Portage Northern ace Cam French winds up during his team’s Super Regional win over Brownstown Woodhaven on Saturday. (Photo courtesy of the Portage Northern baseball program.)
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.)