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.)
Battle Creek St. Philip’s Vicky Groat and Midland High’s Eric Albright both have devoted themselves to Michigan school sports for multiple decades – and both continue to lead as highly-successful coaches while also serving in multiple administrative roles within their schools and as important voices in statewide leadership as well.
To recognize their dedication and far-reaching contributions to educational athletics, Groat and Albright have been named recipients of the Michigan High School Athletic Association’s Allen W. Bush Award for 2023.
Al Bush served as executive director of the MHSAA for 10 years. The award honors individuals for past and continuing service to school athletics as a coach, administrator, official, trainer, doctor or member of the media. The award was developed to bring recognition to people who are giving and serving without a lot of attention. This is the 32nd year of the award.
Groat will enter this fall’s girls volleyball season with a career coaching record of 1,240-304-95, ranking seventh on the MHSAA coaching wins list for her sport. She took over for her mother, equally-legendary Sheila Guerra, for the 1997-98 winter season, stepped away briefly after her second year, and returned to lead the program again in 2000-01. Groat has guided the Tigers to 14 MHSAA Finals championships, including a record nine straight in Class D from Winter 2006-07 through Fall 2014 (volleyball moved to the fall with the 2007-08 school year), and most recently guided St. Philip to back-to-back Division 4 championships to cap the 2020 and 2021 seasons.
A 1985 graduate of the school, Groat is entering her 17th year as the athletic director and also took over as principal on an interim basis in December 2014 and then permanently to begin the 2016-17 school year. She previously had served as the school’s student services director and as an assistant principal. She also served on the MHSAA Representative Council from 2016-20 and is a longtime leader as part of the Michigan Interscholastic Volleyball Coaches Association (MIVCA).
Groat is a member of the Battle Creek St. Philip Athletic and MIVCA Halls of Fame. She was named Michigan High School Coaches Association volleyball Coach of the Year in 2009, and the national Coach of the Year for her sport by the National High School Athletic Coaches Association in 2021. She earned her bachelor's degree from Central Michigan University in 1989 and master’s from Fort Hays State University (Kan.) in 2019.
“Vicky Groat has established herself as one of the most accomplished volleyball coaches in the state and also wears multiple difficult hats so well as the athletic director and principal,” MHSAA Executive Director Mark Uyl said. “Her passion for St. Philip school and its students is evident at every turn, and her desire to help all students excel has been a great benefit to her school and throughout Michigan.”
Albright came to Michigan from Minnesota, graduating from Royalton High School in 1992 and then Hamline University with his bachelor’s degree in 1996. He began at Midland High as a teacher in 1997 and continued in the classroom through 2013-14, adding the varsity baseball coaching job in 2003 and building a 520-199 record over the last two decades while also leading the Chemics to seven league and four District titles and a Division 1 Semifinals appearance in 2018. He became the school’s athletic director in 2010 and serves as an assistant principal as well.
Midland has hosted various MHSAA postseason events under Albright’s direction, including Finals tennis, Semifinals in soccer and football and Quarterfinals for basketball, softball and volleyball. Albright has served on seven committees or task forces for the Association and as part of the Representative Council since 2019.
Albright also is beginning his tenure as president of the Michigan Interscholastic Athletic Administrators Association (MIAAA) and is a Leadership Training Course instructor for the National Interscholastic Athletic Administrators Association (NIAAA). He received a master’s degree from Central Michigan University in 2000 and earned a certified athletic administrator designation from the NIAAA in 2013. Albright also has been an MHSAA registered official in basketball and baseball over the last two decades, most recently in both sports since 2018-19. He worked as a professional baseball umpire in the Gulf Coast League during the 1997 season before beginning his tenure at Midland.
“Eric Albright is a leader in school-based athletics across Michigan with his work with the MIAAA and MHSAA, and he’s become a go-to person for other athletic directors statewide,” Uyl said. “He has worked tirelessly to provide a wealth of guidance and vision, continuously demonstrating his passion for educational athletics.”
PHOTOS Battle Creek St. Philip volleyball coach Vicky Groat steps on the court to receive her team's Division 4 championship trophy in 2021, and Midland's Eric Albright (far right) confers with his pitcher during the 2018 Division 1 Baseball Semifinals.