EAST LANSING – Petersburg Summerfield pitcher Brock Olmstead said he was a little surprised when he got the ball to start Friday’s Division 4 Semifinal, thinking it would be Bulldogs ace Derek Clark who took the mound with a trip to the Finals on the line.
His coach, Travis Pant, feels his team has two aces, however, and his confidence was rewarded as the sophomore threw a two-hitter to lead the Bulldogs to a 5-0 win over Gaylord St. Mary and their first-ever championship game appearance.
“I kind of thought he was going to put Derek to throw in front of me, because we want to get there before we can actually play there,” Olmstead said. “I was happy that he trusted me, and he threw me out there, and it worked out good.”
Summerfield (27-4) will play Saturday against Saginaw Nouvel, which defeated Decatur 4-2 in the second Semifinal at McLane Stadium on the campus of Michigan State University.
Olmstead entered Friday’s game with a chip on his shoulder, carried all the way from last year’s Quarterfinal, a 3-2 loss to St. Joseph Lake Michigan Catholic. Olmstead took the pitching defeat in that game and said he’s had the final scoreboard saved as the lock screen on his phone ever since.
“I just have all the confidence in the world in Brock,” Pant said. “He lost the Quarterfinal game last year, so I was going to give him a chance for some redemption. He’s been throwing great for us all year, and we’re solid defensively when he pitches because I get to put Derek in center field – he made a couple plays today that you just kind of shake your head at. But that was the decision, that’s what we’ve been rolling with and I wasn’t going to change anything because I didn’t want him to think I didn’t have any confidence in him. He’s been throwing Game 1, and Derek will throw Game 2.”
Clark had three hits, one RBI and two runs scored Friday. Olmstead struck out five, allowing the two hits and one walk, facing just 24 batters in seven innings of work.
He also had some early run support, as the Bulldogs jumped on the Snowbirds (26-6) right away. Brendan Dafoe led the game off with a single, followed by a bunt single from Clark. They were both driven in two batters later by Ethan Eyler.
It was the top of the order that was responsible for all of Summerfield’s runs, as the Bulldogs struck again in the third inning. Clark and Eyler each had an RBI triple in the frame, putting the Bulldogs up 4-0. Another run was added in the fifth when No. 5 hitter Mark Keller drove in Dafoe with a sacrifice fly.
Dafoe and Clark each ended the game with three hits, while Eyler had two.
“Our early leads, we’ve been doing that all year,” Eyler said. “I think it’s really key for us to get the early lead and then keep adding on and on. The top of our order is really killing it right now. Everyone one through nine is a hard out.”
Drew Koenig and Logan Murrell each had a hit for St. Mary. Koenig took the loss, striking out five while allowing nine hits.
The Snowbirds were making their fourth straight Semifinal appearance and could see every player who started Friday’s game return next season.
“Obviously next year is next year, but we have the same crew of kids coming back for the most part,” St. Mary coach Matt Nowicki said. “Our plan is next year to work just as hard and get here again.”
Saginaw Nouvel 4, Decatur 2
Brady Alverson and his Saginaw Nouvel teammates didn’t see themselves as a below-.500 team entering the postseason, despite their 9-16-1 record.
“We didn’t really think about our record,” the Nouvel sophomore said. “We knew going into the postseason it starts 0-0. It doesn’t really matter what our record is, it just matters who wins the most games in a row.”
Thanks to a big fifth inning and a resilient pitching performance by senior Jacob Burr, Nouvel has now won five in a row, and a sixth win will give them a Finals title and a .500 record.
“Our regular season, we played a lot of tough teams,” Nouvel coach Shawn Larson said. “We try to do that, too. Not only is our conference tough, but when we’re scheduling out-of-conference games, we want to play good teams. That makes us better, because we know come playoffs, everybody is 0-0 and we all have a shot.”
The Panthers made the most of their shot with a two-out rally in the top of the fifth inning, which provided all four of their runs. Alverson started the scoring with a bases-loaded double, which plated two runs, and in the next at-bat, Justin Osmond singled to drive in two more and make the score 4-1. Prior to that inning, the Panthers had managed just one hit against Decatur pitcher Jakob Southworth.
“I was just thinking of a way I could help my team,” Alverson said. “I was looking for a fastball on the inner half of the plate and tried driving it. I was a little late on it, and I put it in the left-center gap. When it hit the ground, I knew we were going to score, and it was just a rush of adrenaline going through my body as we scored that run.”
That was enough for Burr, who bounced back after allowing a solo home run to Southworth in the first inning that cleared the scoreboard in left field. Burr finished the game with four strikeouts while allowing five hits and two runs in seven innings.
“That’s kind of like the theme of our season: can we come back after being punched in the mouth,” Larson said. “Overcoming some adversity has been huge for us, and I credit the entire season for how we responded right then. There was a time when this team would have shut it down, but not anymore.”
Decatur did add a run in the bottom of the sixth inning, as Benjamin Cerven scored on a double steal following a strikeout.
Southworth led Decatur with two hits. He also struck out seven while allowing seven hits and two walks in 6 2/3 innings pitched. Sam Bartels led Nouvel with two hits.
PHOTOS: (Top) Summerfield's Brock Olmstead unwinds toward the plate during his team's Division 4 Semifinal win Friday. (Middle) Nouvel's Michael Ehlman (11) snags a throw at first base just in front of Decatur runner Justin Gale.
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.)