West Michigan Rules Division 1 Semis

June 13, 2019

By Matt Schoch
Special for Second Half

EAST LANSING – Luke McLean looked right at home Thursday at Michigan State’s McLane Baseball Stadium.

The Rockford High School sophomore scored the winning run with aggressive base running, also securing for himself the pitching victory in a 3-2 Division 1 Semifinal against Macomb Dakota in eight innings of steady rain.

“It’s awesome – an awesome atmosphere, an awesome field,” McLean said. “It’s the end (Saturday). We’ve just got to clutch it out at the end.”

Rockford (28-9) will play Portage Northern at 9 a.m. Saturday for its first championship since 2011.

McLean threw two scoreless innings in relief, setting down six straight batters after allowing a leadoff double to Dakota’s Patrick Merolla in the seventh inning.

Junior catcher Jeff Reseigh had two hits to lead the offense for Dakota (21-17-1). Set up by teammate Greg Guzik’s double, Reseigh’s sixth-inning single through the box scored a pair of runs and gave his team a 2-1 lead.

Down late, Rockford coach Matt Vriesenga said he reminded the Rams about their resiliency, as the team already had won two games in the eighth inning during the tournament.

“I saw our guys deflated a little bit. I just wanted to remind them that we’ve been there before,” Vriesenga said. “Three weeks ago, I did not see this happening. We were a good team, but I did not see this happening.

“But they proved me wrong. We’ve been coming to practice, working on the little things all year long.

“It’s a super special team, and I’m really excited for them.”

In the bottom of the sixth inning, Rockford pinch-hitter Isaac Toole hit a two-out single and advanced to second base on a wild pitch. Alex Miller then hit an RBI single to left field to tie the score at 2-2.

Senior catcher Cody Sterkenburg started the game-winning Rockford rally in the eighth with a single.  McLean ripped a single to move him to second, and a fielder’s choice on a Miller grounder set up the winning play.

With two outs, junior Owen Cairns hit a dribbler to third base, picked up but thrown wide to first base, dragging the Dakota fielder off the bag as Cairns reached safely.

Meanwhile, McLean alertly headed home to send Rockford to Saturday’s Final.

“All that was going through my mind was my seniors,” McLean said. “I was playing for them. I really wanted to play for them in the state championship, and I was just busting my tail down that line to score.”

Sterkenburg added a two-out RBI single in the third for Rockford, which got a strong starting performance by right-hander Zach Marshall, who threw six innings, allowing two runs and striking out five. Marshall scored on Sterkenburg’s hit after his own single.

For Dakota, righty Matt Biebuyck allowed one run over seven innings and had five strikeouts in the program’s first trip to the Semifinals.

Coach Gerald Carley’s Dakota team, which entered the game winning eight of 11 for an improbable run to East Lansing, will graduate six seniors.

Click for the full box score.

Portage Northern 2, Bloomfield Hills Brother Rice 0

Cam French outdueled travel ball teammate Tyler Sarkisian to advance to the Final.

French threw a complete-game shutout, allowing three hits and no walks, and striking out six in the gem.

“Honestly, the plan was just come in like I have all season, just throwing strikes, filling up the zone and mixing up some of the pitches,” said French, who improved to 11-0 on the season. “With this big of a crowd, and people cheering you on, you just got to stay mentally focused and know what’s at hand. And I did that.”

Shortstop Nolan McCarthy delivered the big hit in the sixth inning with an RBI triple off the wall to score Eastern Michigan-bound Tyler Helgeson, who reached on a bunt. McCarthy then scored on an error.

Meanwhile, McCarthy led the defense behind French, as his diving stab opened the third inning.

Greg Lapetina, Jack Beffel and French added hits for Portage Northern (38-7), which will be playing for its first Finals title in this sport.

Sarkisian, who will pitch at the University of Chicago, allowed one earned run and struck out four over six innings for Brother Rice (25-13). 

Sterling Hallman opened the seventh inning with a single for Brother Rice and reached second on a wild pitch. But French got three straight fly outs to center field to close the win.

Brother Rice had just two baserunners reach second base.

Second baseman Tito Flores ended his Brother Rice career with two hits. His coach, Bob Riker, called Flores a “culture changer” for a program. Flores' next stop: University of Michigan, which will play in the College World Series.

As for Portage Northern, the Huskies are back in the Final for the first time since 2015 when they suffered a 2-1 loss to Hartland in 10 innings.

“We feel good to be back here,” French said. “We’ve been waiting a long time.”

Click for the full box score.

PHOTOS: (Top) Rockford’s Luke McLean scores the game-winning run in the Rams’ extra-inning victory over Macomb Dakota on Thursday. (Middle) Cam French fires a pitch during Portage Northern’s shutout of Brother Rice.

Vast Experience Shapes Retired MLB-er Gates Into 3-Time Finals-Winning Coach

By Steve Vedder
Special for MHSAA.com

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

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.)