By Dennis Chase
Special for Second Half
TRAVERSE CITY – Tom Passinault does not like to put unnecessary pressure on his Traverse City St. Francis baseball team.
So, when his team took over the No. 1 ranking in the Division 3 baseball coaches poll, he made it more of a lighthearted moment.
“We were joking when we got ranked No. 1,” Passinault said. “We said, ‘That honor is usually reserved for the football team.’”
But now, two weeks away from the start of the MHSAA Tournament, the 27-2 Gladiators are in that envious position.
And it’s no accident.
St. Francis returned its entire starting lineup from last season’s 25-11 squad. Plus, the Gladiators added junior pitcher/first baseman Joey Muzljakovich, who tore a knee ligament in football and missed last season; and second baseman Gabe Callery, who ran track last spring.
“We expected to be a good team,” junior catcher Cooper Peterson said. “We’re doing really well, even better than I thought.”
The only setbacks have been to Division 1 No. 15 Brownstown Woodhaven and Muskegon Mona Shores. The 27 wins are a school record.
Passinault is in his fourth season as head coach – and the Gladiators are closing in on a fourth consecutive Lake Michigan Conference title.
The keys to success? Pitching and defense.
“In basketball, you talk about how you can always play good defense because you’re not always going to shoot well,” Passinault said. “We (apply) that to baseball. You can always pitch and play defense because your hitting is going to be sporadic at times, although we’ve been pretty successful one through nine hitting the ball.”
St. Francis pitchers sport a 1.45 earned run average. Seven pitchers have earned wins. Muzljakovich is the ace. He’s 7-0 with a 0.58 ERA and has struck out 67 hitters in 36 innings. Junior lefthander Casey Peterson is 5-0 and has yet to allow an earned run. He separated a shoulder in the Mona Shores game, missed about three weeks, but has returned to action. Peterson has 42 strikeouts in 24 innings. Sophomore Keaton Peck is 4-1 with a 2.05 ERA, while senior Connor Sweet is 3-1 with a 1.48 ERA.
“First of all, there’s great depth,” pitching coach Mike Muzljakovich said. “We have four guys that most years we would gladly call our No. 1.”
Mike Muzljakovich believes Joey Muzljakovich and Casey Peterson will pitch in college. In addition to Joey Muzljakovich’s injury last season, Peterson missed time with elbow issues. Sweet stepped up and won 10 games.
Now, everyone is healthy. And with the MHSAA implementing pitch count limits, that depth is a blessing.
“When the pitching limitations came out, we felt like it would be to our advantage because we have more depth than most teams,” Mike Muzljakovich said. “That won’t always be true, but we’re going to ride it for the next three or four years.”
When St. Francis has needed an extra arm, particularly for weekend tournaments, Passinault has called up Josh Bradfield from the JV. He’s 4-0 with a 1.75 ERA.
“Normally, he would be solidly in our rotation,” Mike Muzljakovich said.
What impresses Passinault the most is the command.
“Our strikeout (207) to walk (56) ratio is very impressive,” he said. “We walk (an opposing batter) about every 3.2 innings.”
That’s not lost on the players in the field.
“We have phenomenal pitching,” sophomore centerfielder Danny Passinault said. “Our pitchers throw strikes, and our defense makes plays.”
The Gladiators are especially strong up the middle with Peterson behind the plate, Peck at shortstop, Callery at second and Passinault in center.
“Watching (Passinault) track a baseball is the prettiest thing I’ve ever seen,” Peterson said.
Tom Passinault notes that he has a “really good defensive team,” and he’s quick to praise his other regulars, including Sweet at third, Muzljakovich at first, senior Peter McAndrews in left and sophomore Artie Dutmers in right
“As hard as our pitchers throw, (Dutmers) gets a lot of action,” Passinault said.
Assistant coach Brad Peterson works with the infielders.
The Gladiators are also hitting .338 as a team. The leaders include Muzljakovich (.414), Sweet (.405), Peck (.395), McAndrews (.392) and Cooper Peterson, junior Matt Westman and sophomore Nathan Schmuckal (all at .333). Muzljakovich leads the team with 25 RBI.
“We’re getting clutch hits at the right time and scoring runs when we need to,” Passinault said.
A year ago, the Gladiators were surprised in the District by Lake City.
“Losing to Lake City did not sit well with us,” Cooper Peterson said. “It’s been a major motivator this whole year.”
“We had one of those games you want to avoid,” Passinault added. “In the tournament, it’s one (loss) and done.”
Passinault called the 2016 season a “unique year” because he did not have a senior.
“It made last year tough leadership-wise,” he said. “But the good thing is we brought a bunch of players back that had experience.”
Callery, who had played baseball previously, decided to come back after running track. He’s one of four seniors on this year’s roster.
“I missed it,” he said. “It’s fun being around these guys. Plus, I knew we had a chance to be really good.”
Passinault, who coached Grand Rapids Catholic Central to the Division 4 Football Final in 2005 and then turned around the Traverse City Central football program before stepping down after the 2014 campaign, said the Gladiators have “high goals” as the postseason nears. But he knows there will be difficult challenges ahead.
“One of the things we know we’ll have to do is beat a very good pitcher,” he said. “We challenge the kids – what can you do when we face that good pitcher? Not everybody is going to drive the ball in the gap. Is it stealing bases? Is it making a play? We’re really trying to get the kids to understand what they can do to make us better.”
It’s already been a good year for the Passinaults. Tom and Teresa’s oldest son, Noah, a senior at St. Francis, received a scholarship and will attend Notre Dame, Tom’s alma mater. Noah, who’s involved in band and choir, is thinking of trying out for the marching band, his father said.
“I told my wife, ‘I knew I’d have a son playing in that football stadium,’” Tom Passinault said. “I thought he might be a running back, but he’s a clarinet. It’s awesome. He’s going (to Notre Dame) for the right reasons. He likes math and philosophy and he made it into their honors college, which is quite a feat.”
As a sophomore, Danny Passinault has been a primetime varsity player in football, basketball and baseball. He was the quarterback on the 11-1 football team that lost a heartbreaker to eventual champion Pewamo-Westphalia in the Regional Final.
The Passinaults’ daughter, Gwyneth, a seventh-grader, just set the school record in the 70-meter dash.
“It’s been quite a spring,” Passinault said.
And it looks like it could get even better. The Gladiators will host the baseball District.
“We stress to the kids, that no matter what happens, it’s been a good year,” Passinault said. “We don’t want to put too much pressure on the end result. But we do have high goals. We want to go as far as we can.”
Dennis Chase worked 32 years as a sportswriter at the Traverse City Record-Eagle, including as sports editor from 2000-14. He can be reached at [email protected] with story ideas for Manistee, Wexford, Missaukee, Roscommon, Ogemaw, Iosco, Alcona, Oscoda, Crawford, Kalkaska, Grand Traverse, Benzie, Leelanau, Antrim, Otsego, Montmorency, Alpena, Presque Isle, Cheboygan, Charlevoix and Emmet counties.
PHOTOS: (Top) Traverse City St. Francis senior Conner Sweet prepares to deliver a pitch during a game this season. (Middle) Senior Gabe Callery stretches his lead off first base. (Below) Peter McAndrews (3) holds an Elk Rapids runner close to first base. (Photos by Toni Sweet.)
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.)