EAST LANSING – Grosse Pointe Woods University Liggett has much to play for this season. As the favorite entering the Division 3 tournament, the Knights have had their eyes set on winning the school’s fourth title in six years.
On June 1, their focus became even sharper.
The father of University Liggett coach Dan Cimini died of cancer that day, leaving the team stunned and Cimini torn between the sorrow that was within him and his obligation to his team.
The pain remains for Cimini and his players, and the Knights are still on course to win that title.
Anthony George shook off a few first-inning jitters and threw a complete-game four-hitter to lead the Knights to a 9-0 victory over Scottville Mason County Central in a Division 3 Semifinal on Thursday at McLane Stadium on the campus of Michigan State University.
University Liggett (31-4) will play New Lothrop in the Final at 5 p.m. Saturday.
New Lothrop defeated Jackson Lumen Christi, 6-1, in the other Semifinal.
George, a sophomore right-hander, hit the first batter, walked the second and loaded the bases before Cimini took a trip to the mound.
“I told him to take a deep breath,” Cimini said. “He was amped up. Everyone was.”
George retired the next two batters, and no other runner reached third base over the final six innings. He allowed that one walk and retired the final eight batters in order.
“I tried to overthrow,” George said. “Coach said to take a step back. I was trying to do something I’m not accustomed to. With the defense behind me, you don’t have to strike everyone out.”
George said the team met after learning of Cimini’s father’s death and became more resolved.
“It was a team thing,” George said. “As a family we had to take it to heart. That meeting was a big part of us getting even better.”
The Knights scored four in the third inning highlighted by William Morrison’s three-run double. That inning lessoned the pressure on George.
Jackson Walkowiak had three of University Liggett’s eight hits and two of his team’s eight stolen bases.
The Knights scored single runs in the fourth, sixth and seventh innings, and they scored two in the fifth.
“I’m so proud of them,” Cimini said. “Everyone knows that your goal is to get to the final four. Everything was geared for us to get back to the final. We’ve been ranked No. 1 all year, and we love it. We want that. When that happens you know that you get (the opponents’) best.”
Mason County Central (28-9) used two pitchers, but they struggled with control and combined to allow five walks and hit three batters.
“That’s not what we normally do,” Central coach Don Thomas said. “We usually throw strikes.
“We have nothing to hang our heads about.”
New Lothrop 6, Jackson Lumen Christi 1
Cam Pope leaned on the experience gained from pitching in a 2014 Semifinal to pitch a complete game victory in this year’s Semifinal on Friday.
Pope pitched 6 1/3 innings in 3-1 victory over Maple City Glen Lake two years ago to get the Hornets to the title game.
He allowed eight hits, three walks and struck out six against reigning champion Lumen Christi. Pope ran into trouble in only two innings, and Lumen Christi (25-14) ran itself out of a potential big inning in the third.
With one out, starting pitcher John Fleming doubled for Lumen Christi. He scored on Connor Mogle’s triple to tie the game at 1-1. The third hitter in the lineup, Zach Mehelich, batted next, and when a Pope pitch got away from catcher Zac Besant, Mogle tried to score. Besant threw to Pope, who put the tag on Mogle.
Mehelich singled but Pope got the last out.
“I was hoping to hit my spots,” Pope said. “It’s unbelievable. We knew we had a good team in 2014. We have a lot of young guys this year and didn’t know what to expect.”
New Lothrop (41-3) has just three seniors on this team: Pope, shortstop Steve Garza and centerfielder Quentin Taylor.
The Hornets scored two runs in the fourth inning and added three in the fifth to give Pope a sizeable cushion. Max Wendling had RBI singles in each of those innings.
“It was just a perfect game,” New Lothrop coach Benjamin Almasy said. “They made plays. Our shortstop always makes plays.
“We just kind of do our thing. We believe in the name that’s on the front of our jersey.”
PHOTOS: (Top) University Liggett’s William Kopicki takes off for second base during Friday’s Division 3 Semifinal. (Middle) New Lothrop pitcher Cam Pope moves toward the plate during his team’s win over Jackson Lumen Christi.
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.)