By Jason Schmitt
Special for Second Half
EAST LANSING – As soon as he saw the signal to intentionally walk teammate Davis Graham, Grosse Pointe South first baseman Anthony Dermanulian knew he had to buckle down and come through for his team.
With the bases loaded and the MHSAA Division 1 championship game against Brownstown Woodhaven tied 1-1 in the bottom of the third inning, Dermanulian came through in the clutch, drilling a bases-clearing double that gave his team the lead and clear momentum.
“I feel like it was disrespecting me,” said Dermanulian, smiling. “He was assuming I was going to be an easy out. So I stared him down because I knew I was going to kill the ball. That’s what I was thinking, that I was going to get a hit.”
The hit proved to be the difference-maker in South’s 8-1 victory, which gave the Blue Devils – unranked heading into the postseason – their first MHSAA baseball championship since 2001.
“It was the right thing to do,” South coach Dan Griesbaum said of the intentional walk to Graham. “Graham’s our best hitter, second and third base (occupied), first base open. It was the best thing to do. You had to walk him and let someone else beat you. (Dermanulian) just put a hurt on one. That was the key in the game, right there.”
The three-run cushion was more than enough for South starter Cameron Shook, who went the distance on the mound, scattering seven hits over seven innings while allowing just one earned running and striking out five. Shook, who missed some time this season with a leg injury, came up big in his team’s Quarterfinal victory over Macomb Dakota and again on Saturday.
“It’s been more magical than anything I could ever ask for,” said Shook, who will play college football for Navy in the fall. “We did this, together. There’s no me, there’s no singular person. We as a team accomplished what everyone thought was impossible for us to do.”
South added a pair of runs in both the fourth and sixth innings to ease to the victory. The Blue Devils used a little small ball to score a pair in the fourth. After sophomore Cameron Mallegg reached on an error to begin the inning, senior Conor McKenna had a bunt single. Both moved up a base on senior Steven Cavera’s sacrifice bunt. Mallegg scored on a passed ball and McKenna crossed the plate courtesy of a squeeze bunt by senior Giovanny Lutfy to make it 6-1.
Consecutive hits by McKenna, Cavera and Lutfy, followed by a hit by pitch (of senior Joseph Naporano) and a sacrifice fly by Graham capped off South’s scoring in the sixth.
Woodhaven scored its lone run in the top of the first inning, on a home run by Colin Czajkowski. The junior finished 2 for 3 in the game and also took the loss on the mound after allowing eight runs (but just two earned) in five innings. Senior Alonzo Chavez was 3 for 3 in his team’s loss.
The Warriors (34-6) finished up a historic season on the diamond, having captured the school’s first-ever Regional championship and trip to the Semifinals.
“I’m very proud of (the team), the effort they put into it, the ride they took us all on; it’s been amazing,” Woodhaven coach Corey Farner said. “I told them, win or lose, I’m going to love them no matter what. Some of the bounces didn’t go our way. We didn’t play particularly well, so we didn’t deserve to win today.”
Griesbaum said his team’s playoff run was as impressive as he’s seen in his 35 years on the Blue Devils’ bench.
“We’ve had eight trips to the final four, this was our second title, we were runner-up once,” Griesbaum said, “but I’ve never seen a group play with more confidence than this one.
PHOTOS: (Top) Grosse Pointe South players including Cameron Mallegg (16) and Cody Shook celebrate after Mallegg scores a run Saturday. (Middle) Blue Devils catcher Davis Graham readies to attempt a tag on Woodhaven’s Alonzo Chavez.
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."
2023 Made In Michigan
July 25: After All-American Career, Rockford's Bennett Making Impact as Mat Mentor - Read
July 20: Oakridge 3-Sport Star Potts Applying Lessons to 'Second Chapter' in Sales - Read
July 18: Frankfort Hoops Staff Bolstered by Past Stars Giving Back in Banktson, Kreski - Read
July 12: Championship Memories, High School Tennis' Impact Stick with Hackett Pair - Read
July 6: Brother Rice Finals Hero Aiming to Ace Family Life, Financial World - Read
July 5: Lapeer West 4-Time Finals Winner Set to Build Champions at Oklahoma - Read
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.)