Summerfield Brings Historic End to Spring

By Paul Costanzo
Special for

June 15, 2019

EAST LANSING – For a program that had never been to a Semifinal prior to this year, Petersburg Summerfield looked awfully comfortable at McLane Stadium. 

The Bulldogs were unfazed by the pressure of playing for their first championship at Michigan State University and capped off a brilliant weekend Saturday with a 9-0 win against Saginaw Nouvel in the MHSAA Division 4 Baseball Final.  

“I preached to them from the first day of practice that we’re going to win the state championship,” Summerfield coach Travis Pant said. “No stage, no matter who we play and on any stage – we went to Decatur and played under the lights. We scheduled some big games, and I just wanted to get them used to the big stage so this was, ‘We’re supposed to be here.’ We just wanted to show that we do belong and that none of this was a fluke up to this point. I really appreciate them just coming out here and playing loose and playing our game.” 

Nobody could possibly look at what the Bulldogs did this postseason as a fluke, as they outscored opponents by a combined 89-2 in the postseason, with shutouts in each of their last three games.  

“Just hit the ball and field the ball; that’s basically all we did,” Summerfield junior pitcher Derek Clark said. “The pitchers threw strikes, the defense – I let them work behind me, and we got hot at the right time.” 

The catalyst for that was a pitching staff led by Clark, who threw a gem Saturday night to shut the Nouvel offense down. Clark went the full seven innings, striking out 11 and allowing four hits and one walk. 

He had plenty of help – some of it he provided himself – and got it early. Just like it had the day before, the Summerfield offense came out hot in the top of the first inning, scoring a pair of runs to put Nouvel in an early hole.  

Sophomore Brock Olmstead opened the scoring with an RBI single, and Clark made it 2-0 when he scored on a squeeze bunt laid down by Brandon Tyler. 

At that point, with Clark about to take the mound, the Summerfield coaches and players felt they were on their way to a title. 

“We don’t give up a lot of runs, so I knew that if we could hop on a team, we could be all right with Derek on the mound,” Pant said. “(Clark) has pitched a lot of big games – he pitched a league championship, a District championship, a Super Regional Final and a state championship and didn’t give up a run in any of those games. You look at it, and it is outrageous.” 

Nouvel (15-17-1) threatened in the bottom of the fourth inning, getting three straight singles to load the bases with two outs. But Clark was able to get a strikeout to end the threat. 

In the next half inning, the Bulldogs (28-4) were able to get a run out of seemingly nowhere and go up 3-0. With two outs, Olmstead attempted to steal third, and as he neared the bag, the throw from the catcher went into left field, as the third baseman had charged toward the plate to defend a possible bunt.  

Clark blew the game open in the top of the sixth with a three-run triple after a rally started by the bottom of the Bulldogs order. No. 8 hitter Bryce Smith started it with a single, which was followed by a single from pinch hitter Kirk Knerr, and a perfectly placed bunt by leadoff hitter Brendan Dafoe to load the bases for Clark. One batter later, Clark was driven in by a sacrifice fly to left from Olmstead to make the score 7-0. 

“If their whole lineup is hitting, that makes things pretty difficult, right?” Nouvel coach Shawn Larson said. “We knew coming in they’re a good hitting team. We just assumed we would be able to put the bat on the ball as well, because we’re the same type of team. They do a lot of things that we do with their energy and their momentum and their enthusiasm. We just weren’t able to capitalize.” 

The Bulldogs added a run in the top of the seventh inning, as Mark Keller hit a leadoff triple and was driven in by a Devin Albain single. Albain scored on a Smith single to make it 9-0. 

Nouvel’s Brady Alverson took the loss, striking out seven and allowing three runs in four innings. Dafoe and Smith each had two hits for Summerfield. 

Long after the game ended, the Bulldogs players and coaches lingered down the left field line, soaking up the moment. 

“It means a ton,” Clark said. “We have 18 league titles, and to finally get the first state championship means a lot to this program and this school.”

Click for the full box score.

PHOTOS: (Top) Summerfield raises its first Finals baseball championship trophy Saturday night at McLane Stadium. (Middle) Derek Clark dives toward the plate while Nouvel catcher Joe Bartles waits for a throw.

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."

2023 Made In Michigan

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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.)