SCHOOLCRAFT — Accompanied by fire trucks and greeted by friends and families, the Schoolcraft boys basketball team arrived back in town last month on a state basketball championship high.
But several athletes did not have much time to celebrate.
Eight of those players are also on the Eagles baseball team, and coach Scott Muffley found his guys a bit behind schedule to start the season.
“I’m very excited for them, but one thing (the extended basketball season) did for us, we’re trying to build our pitch counts up with our pitchers and if we didn’t throw a lot during the wintertime, we’re kinda behind schedule,” he said.
“It does affect what we do on the mound and getting guys the number of reps.”
Two of those hoopsters, Luke Housler and first-team all-stater Tyler DeGroote, are the only seniors on a young baseball squad. Another, Eli DeVisser, is one of only two juniors, with Austin Jones.
“I’ve got some freshmen. I’ve got many, many, many sophomores, like two juniors and two seniors,” Muffley said.
On the plus side, “I’ve got a great group of guys, and they brought the love of the game back for me again.”
DeGroote, Housler and DeVisser were also on the baseball team that made the Division 3 Regional Finals last year in spite of starting the postseason with a losing record. The Eagles lost 4-0 to Pewamo-Westphalia in their Regional Final.
All three athletes said they hope to use that experience plus the hoops success to take the baseball team even farther.
With the Michigan weather impacting the schedule, the Eagles have played just four games so far, posting a 2-2 record after a Monday defeat at Paw Paw.
“We know how tight-knit the (basketball) team was,” Housler said. “There was a camaraderie with the team.
“I’m hoping to carry that team chemistry over (to baseball) with the eight guys from the basketball team. That’s what it takes to win a championship.”
Switching from the fast-paced basketball competition to baseball was not difficult, Housler said.
“Basketball is fast-paced, but I played baseball my whole life,” he said. “There’s a picture on the wall at my house of me holding a baseball when I was 2 years old.”
DeGroote said that even though a few of the eight did not see minutes in the championship basketball game, they still should help the baseball team based on their hoops experience.
Schoolcraft’s basketball run concluded with a 55-39 win over 2021 Division 3 champion Flint Beecher in the Semifinal, followed by a 59-49 victory over Menominee in the title game at Breslin Center.
“We all know how to win; we all know how to buy into something,” he said. “Maybe some of those kids didn’t get any minutes in the game, but they really helped us out in practice.
“That’s really what helps you go on, the kids who are willing to be there every day, even though they may not get any playing time.”
Muffley, who has coached for more than 20 years, skippered the Three Rivers baseball team before stepping down to spend time with his family.
He was also an MHSAA official and received a 20-year award three years ago, officiating football, baseball, basketball and softball.
His son, Jordyn Muffley, played in the minor leagues with the Tampa Bay Rays organization, and daughter Josie Muffley is the starting shortstop at Florida State. Both played at Portage Central.
“I stopped coaching for about five years to watch my kids grow,” he said. “That’s when I did a lot of officiating.”
Looking at this year’s team, Scott Muffley will rely heavily on returnees DeGroote, Housler and DeVisser to lead the team.
“All three are starters with the experience from the basketball team and winning a state championship,” Muffley said. “Eli was a sophomore last year and was one of the main contributors as far as batting average.”
DeVisser, a shortstop, agreed winning the basketball championship will help this spring.
“We know what it feels like to make it far into a tournament, so it gives us confidence,” he said. “It helps us once we get further into our season; it helps us play better because we don’t get as nervous because we made it far.”
Housler, who plays second base, is headed next to University of Tennessee, but not as an athlete.
“I just want to be a student,” he said. “It’s going to be weird without sports, but I’m excited. I’m ready to get out of state and go to a warmer area and experience a different culture.”
Muffley said Housler is “a very polite, mild-mannered kid.
“I’m really looking forward to what Luke’s going to do for us as a leader on the team.”
DeGroote, who pitches and plays first base, plans to play basketball and baseball at Division II Rockhurst University in Kansas City, Mo.
“Tyler brings a lot of leadership to the team, and he has a lot of athletic ability as well,” Muffley said.
The other five players making the transition from basketball to baseball are all sophomores: Bennett Ellison, Fischer Holmes, Colin Hotrum, Thomas Rutkoskie and Jaden VanderWiere.
Other sophomores are Easton Poulsen and Carsten Svoboda. The team’s freshmen are Gavin Hart, Gavin Knowlton, Ryley Bruner, Nyan Wonders and Ethan Goddard.
Pam Shebest served as a sportswriter at the Kalamazoo Gazette from 1985-2009 after 11 years part-time with the Gazette while teaching French and English at White Pigeon High School. She can be reached at [email protected] with story ideas for Calhoun, Kalamazoo and Van Buren counties.
PHOTOS (Top) Schoolcraft’s Eli DeVisser awaits a throw with Luke Housler (20) backing him up during Monday’s game against Paw Paw. (Middle) Clockwise from top left: Schoolcraft baseball coach Scott Muffley, Tyler Groote, DeVisser and Housler. (Below) DeGroote stretches to make the play at first. (Action photos by Stephanie Blentlinger/Lingering Memories Photography. Head shots by Pam Shebest.)
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.)