Sophomore Hurls Hartland into D1 Final

June 11, 2015

By Chip Mundy
Special for Second Half

EAST LANSING – It would not be an overstatement to say that Kyle Kletzka was the surprise star of the game Friday morning at McLane Baseball Stadium on the campus of Michigan State University.

Kletzka, a 5-foot-9 sophomore pitcher who was on the Hartland junior varsity eight weeks ago, hurled a four-hit shutout against Grand Rapids Kenowa Hills as the Eagles scored a 5-0 victory in the first of two MHSAA Division 1 Baseball Semifinals.

Unranked Hartland (27-16-1) will play unranked Portage Northern (30-7-1) at 9 a.m. Saturday in the championship game at McLane Stadium.

Kletzka, a right-hander, did not learn about the Semifinal starting assignment until Wednesday night.

“Coach just straight up told me, ‘You’re on the mound tomorrow,’ ” said Kletzka, who struck out four and walked two. “At first I was a little nervous, but I slept on it, and I was ready to go.”

He certainly was ready to go. Kletzka struck out the first two batters of the game, and that helped ease whatever nerves he might have been feeling.

“It was big time,” he said. “As soon as I got those two strikeouts, it was all over. I wanted the win so bad. Coming in, I had a little bit of doubt, but after those strikeouts, I didn’t have any doubts.”

Hartland coach Brian Morrison agreed that those initial strikeouts were “big time.”

“It settled everybody down,” Morrison said. “There were a bunch of nerves, and he calmed the entire team down. The plan was not for him to go seven, but once he got going he looked comfortable, so we let him go.

“We had confidence that he would go out there and throw strikes, and he did that, and they hit them at us and we made the plays.”

Kletzka never got into serious trouble. Twice he allowed a runner to get to second base, but he got out of it both times with nobody scoring.

“My slider was working the most for me,” Kletzka said. “It’s my go-to pitch normally. I can’t even explain the feeling. It’s amazing.”

Hartland took a 2-0 lead in the bottom of the first inning. After walks to Alex Vydick and Max Cadman, designated hitter Gary Turnbull punched a single over first base, scoring Vydick, and Cadman scored on a throwing error on the play.

The Eagles added two more in the third inning when Turnbull was hit by a pitch with the bases loaded, and a sacrifice fly by freshman Max Hendricks brought in another. Hartland’s final run came in the fifth inning on an RBI single by Hendricks, who had two RBI, as did Turnbull.

Sophomore second baseman Hunter Delanoy was the only Hartland player with more than one hit as he had two singles, while John Baker, who had a single and a walk, was the only player to score twice.

“It’s pretty surreal right now,” said Cadman, the catcher who was one of just two seniors to start the game. “It still hasn’t hit me that this team is going to the state final. I love this team and I love to play with them.”

Grand Rapids Kenowa Hills (33-5), ranked eighth in the final Division I coaches poll, had four hits and two errors behind pitcher Bennett Norry, who struck out five and walked four in six innings. Jarod Nickel and Noah Gloe each doubled for the Knights.

“We didn’t take great at-bats, and we made too many mistakes in the field,” Kenowa Hills coach Joe Acker said. “We were hoping to jump on them early, and it just didn’t happen. But take nothing away from their kid. He threw well. He threw strikes. The kid was good.”

Morrison said it was not a slam-dunk decision to go with Kletzka as the starter.

“I just had a gut feeling,” he said. “There were a few guys who I have confidence could have handled this game, but we thought if we had to go to multiple guys, we liked the order with him first.”

Morrison is not facing a tough decision about the starter for the championship game Saturday. He will go with his ace, junior right-hander Baker. 

“If somebody is going to beat us with him on the hill, they’re going to have to beat us,” he said.

Click for the box score.             

Portage Northern 8, Grosse Pointe South 0

Portage Northern senior pitcher Blake Therrian knew what to do with an early six-run lead Friday in the second Division 1 Semifinal.

“It’s huge for us. Getting runs puts me in a position to just make my pitches and do what I do,” Therrian said. “I don’t have to force pitches.”

Portage Northern had a 5-0 lead before it picked up its first hit, as Grosse Pointe South made five errors in the first two innings.

“Them not making the routine plays kind of gave us the momentum,” Portage Northern coach Chris Andrews said. “When we get ahead, the pitchers are just great at pounding the strike zone and pitching backwards, and our defense came through again.

“Blake can pitch backwards. He can throw his off-speed in fastball counts, and he was able to do that. That is tough on good hitters.”

Portage Northern scored six runs in the first two innings on just one hit. The Huskies scored two in the first without a hit as they had a walk, a batter hit by a pitch and took advantage of two errors by Grosse Pointe South. Both errors came on the first two balls in play in the bottom of the first.

In the second inning, Portage Northern scored four as Grosse Pointe South committed three more errors, issued two walks and hit another batter. 

The lone hit in the first two innings by Portage Northern was a run-scoring single by senior first baseman Collin Hall.

“You can’t make five errors in two innings and expect to have a good outcome,” Grosse Pointe South coach Dan Griesbaum said. “But it doesn’t take away from the year we had. We had a tremendous year, and one game doesn’t spoil it.” 

Brady Young had two hits and scored two runs for Portage Northern, while Max Schuemann and Tommy Henry each scored three runs.

Henry, the team’s No. 1 pitcher, will start the championship game Saturday against Hartland. 

“I couldn’t ask for anything more,” Andrews said. “Tommy has been lights-out for us, and I’m glad he’s on our team.”

Grosse Pointe South (32-12), which out-hit Portage Northern 8-6, did not have a player with more than one. 

Click for the box score.

PHOTOS: (Top) Hartland sophomore Kyle Kletzka unloads a pitch during his team’s Division 1 Semifinal win Thursday at McLane Stadium. (Middle) A Portage Northern runner slides into home past the tag by Grosse Pointe South catcher Logan Mico.

Vast Experience Shapes Retired MLB-er Gates Into 3-Time Finals-Winning Coach

By Steve Vedder
Special for

August 1, 2023

If there is anything that Brent Gates knows for sure, it's that there is no single explanation for three MHSAA Finals baseball championships.

Made in Michigan is powered by Michigan Army National Guard.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.

Gates makes a tag at second base while playing for the national team.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.

Gates presents the championship trophy this season to his Grand Rapids Christian players."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.)