EAST LANSING – By the time the final weekend of the baseball season came around, Orchard Lake St. Mary’s was a juggernaut.
The young but incredibly talented Eaglets showed that by defeating their final two opponents by a combined score of 18-1, including an 8-1 victory Saturday against Grand Rapids Catholic Central in the MHSAA Division 2 Final at McLane Stadium.
But after a 7-9 start to the season, what seemed inevitable by the end looked far from certain.
“That Ohio trip (on spring break), we really just kind of bonded closer,” St. Mary’s sophomore second baseman Alex Mooney said. “We said, ‘Enough is enough, we’re not losing anymore,’ and that’s actually what we did – we haven’t lost since. You see all the talent, you see all the (college) commitments and stuff, and it’s like, ‘Why aren’t we winning?’ Then it finally just clicked, and everything just came together.”
St. Mary’s (34-9-2) finished the season 27-0-2 over its final 29 games to claim the fourth Finals title in school history, and first since 2015.
"It’s good putting it all together,” Eaglets coach Matt Petry said. “At the beginning of the year while we were struggling, we would get good pitching and we wouldn’t swing. Or we would swing and we wouldn’t get good pitching. For the last two months, we’ve kind of put it all together and we’ve won every type of game possible, and the guys were just really confident coming into this weekend.”
That confidence was evident Saturday, as the Eaglets were always in control against the Cougars thanks to strong hitting and a stellar pitching performance from freshman starter Brock Porter. In six innings of work, Porter struck out seven while allowing five hits, three walks and one run.
“I definitely have confidence in Brock,” Mooney said. “He’s no normal freshman, so I don’t think the stage ever gets too big for him. He’s going to be a stud.”
Senior Dillon Kark closed the game, allowing one hit before forcing a double play ball to end the seventh inning.
Petry said he had complete confidence in Porter, despite his age, but he also knew he had the full strength of his deep pitching staff at the ready thanks to a complete-game outing from Thursday’s starter Logan Wood.
“Brock has thrown great for us,” Petry said. “That was his first start in the playoffs, but he had three wins prior to today in relief. We really couldn’t make a bad decision, whether we wanted to start Brock or Anthony Fett or Mikey Gall, we were confident in all those guys, but we went with Brock. It started with Logan Wood on Thursday going a complete, that way we had the whole rest of our staff available. Some very talented guys and guys with experience. After Brock we had Dillon Kark closing it out, which was very valuable.”
St. Mary’s bats wasted little time getting going, as they scored two runs in each of the first three innings to jump out to a 6-0 lead.
Senior catcher Harrison Poeszat opened the scoring with an RBI single, and Kameron Arnold, who came in to run for him, made it 2-0 with some heads-up play. After he stole second, the throw went into the outfield and Arnold took advantage of the confusion to run home.
Mooney drove in a pair of runs with a single in the second inning, and the Eaglets added two more runs on an error in the third.
Catholic Central (27-11) got on the board in the fifth inning with a sacrifice fly from Kyle Tepper that drove in Nate Trudeau.
Jack Mooney put St. Mary’s up 7-1 in the bottom of the fifth inning with a sacrifice that scored Grant Henson, and an RBI triple from Nolan Schubart in the bottom of the sixth closed out the scoring.
“We looked at their lineup before we played and we saw that the bottom of their order, 7-8-9, were seniors,” Catholic Central coach Tim MacKinnon said. “When you have seniors hitting 7, 8 and 9, you have a pretty decent ballclub, and we knew that. We had seen them play Thursday, and we knew that they would come out swinging the bat, and they did. We didn’t get the results we wanted, but we got a good effort out of Joe Collins. But a couple of balls got left up, and they tattooed them a little bit and got some runs early. Then we had to fight back from there.”
Mooney led the way for St. Mary’s with three hits, while Schubert had two. Cole Sibley added an RBI.
Brenden Leonard led Catholic Central with two hits.
“We had a great season,” MacKinnon said. “We ran up against a really nice ballclub. Matt Petry does a good job with his team, and they played all aspects of the game very well. Porter did a great job, they hit the ball extremely well today and played good defense. After the game, I told (my team) they had a good season, and you don’t throw one season into a situation where one last game means everything for the season.”
PHOTOS: (Top) Orchard Lake St. Mary's Brock Porter makes his move toward the plate Saturday during the Division 2 championship game. (Middle) The Eaglets' Cole Sibley (9) slides into second base as Nate Trudeau awaits the throw.
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.)