By Jason Schmitt
Special for Second Half
EAST LANSING – Never underestimate the importance of defense – especially when it comes down to one final game to decide it all.
Stevensville Lakeshore played solid defense and took advantage of four Saginaw Swan Valley errors, and enjoyed a stellar pitching performance by senior Joel Brawley to claim a 6-3 victory in Saturday’s MHSAA Division 2 Final.
The championship was the Lancers’ second straight, making them the first to repeat at the Finals level of the tournament since Grand Rapids Christian in 2012-13.
“I always tell (my team), good teams get to the final four, great teams win it,” said Lakeshore head coach Mark Nate, whose team beat Bay City John Glenn in the 2017 title game. “That’s how we lived it last year, and we weren’t just happy to get here. Last year, we wanted to win it, and we did.
“This year, the whole talk was – for 365 days – repeat, repeat and we had a long way to go. The way we were playing in April, you would have never believed we’d be standing here now.”
Lakeshore’s game is built around pressuring its opponents by playing small ball. It worked right from the start Saturday. It didn’t take the Lancers long to take advantage of Swan Valley’s struggling defense, as they struck twice in the top of the first inning with a pair of runs on throwing errors.
Senior Sean Branch got things started with a base hit to center field. After stealing second, he moved to third on an infield single by senior Bray Plomb, then scored on an overthrow to first base. On the next play, junior Cam Dalrymple beat out a bunt to third base, and courtesy runner Ryan Soper scored on a poor throw to first, giving his team a 2-0 lead.
Lakeshore (27-14) would add two more runs in the fourth inning, again aided by the Vikings’ defense. Sophomore Oli Carmody walked to start the inning, stole second base and scored on a bunt single by Brawley when the throw to first sailed into foul territory. Brawley’s courtesy runner, junior Kyle Wojahn, would later score on a fielder’s choice by Branch to up the lead to 4-0.
“We lost four good (players) from last year, but we gained three to four good ones. And once they started learning our game, it started to click for us,” Nate said. “At the end of the day, if you stick with the plan, you can produce a lot of runs by not really even hitting the ball, (using) speed and small ball. It’s a huge part of Lakeshore baseball.”
The Lancers capped off their scoring with two runs in the fifth. Carmody walked and moved to second on a single by junior Jared Evans. Brawley then hit a grounder to short, but the throw pulled the first baseman off the bag, allowing Carmody to score. Senior Logan Morrow then drove in Evans with a bloop single to make it 6-0.
Swan Valley (33-9-3) scored a run in the bottom of the fifth inning thanks to three singles, two that didn’t leave the infield. Junior Conner Sika had a one-out single to get things started. With two outs, senior Cameron Schroeder and sophomore Brian Ross pieced together back-to-back infield hits.
Sophomore Mitchell Jebb then hit a grounder to third, but the throw pulled the first baseman off the bag, allowing Sika to score the Vikings’ first run of the game.
Swan Valley would add two more in the bottom of the seventh on a two-run double by sophomore Easton Goldensoph, which plated sophomores Victor Mancini and Brian Ross.
Brawley went 6? innings on the mound, scattering 10 hits before being pulled due to pitch count. Carmody came in and got the last out to end the game.
“There’s nothing like it, to go back-to-back,” said Brawley, whose cousin Connor pitched 7? scoreless innings Thursday, helping his team to a 3-0 shutout victory over Orchard Lake St. Mary’s in a Semifinal game. “This team has worked so hard, and we feel like we deserve it. I felt like this was just another game; that’s how you’ve got to think of it. I had to go out there and do my job and let the defense work, and good things will happen.”
Connor Brawley, Evans and Morrow each collected a pair of hits in their team’s victory.
Ross, one of eight sophomores on Swan Valley’s roster, took the loss on the mound. He pitched 3? innings, allowing six hits and three earned runs while striking out four.
“Hey, we had a great year. That’s a very good team,” Swan Valley coach Craig Leddy said. “We’re young. I know it’s tough to get back here, but we’ve got all the kids to get back here. Our No. 1 is a freshman, our No. 2 is a junior and our No. 3 is a sophomore. We’ve just got to play clean ball like we did all year. You can’t play in a championship game and make mistakes, and we made mistakes.”
PHOTOS: (Top) Stevensville Lakeshore’s Joel Brawley delivers a pitch during Saturday’s Division 2 Final at McLane Stadium. (Middle) Swan Valley’s Easton Goldensoph stretches to beat a throw to first base.
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.)