By Dennis Chase
Special for Second Half
TRAVERSE CITY – Traverse City West has the blueprint.
Now the Titans are hoping to build off their success from last spring when they won a school-record 41 games and reached the MHSAA Division 1 Baseball Semifinals.
So far, so good. The Titans are off to a 6-1 start.
“We always keep the same goals, the same expectations,” coach Matt Bocian said. “Winning the conference, winning the District, those are the expectations. And then you set your goals a little higher (after that). Once you get a little taste of something (like a Semifinal appearance), maybe you want a little more. We try to keep them hungry.”
West returns just two everyday starters from a year ago – centerfielder Gavin Garmhausen and pitcher-third baseman Ryan Hayes – but several other underclassmen saw significant action.
“We feel good with the team we have – and where we’re at,” senior catcher-first baseman Carson Rosa said. “We have good talent. We just have to come to practice every day wanting to get better. Without that attitude, we’re going to flat line and we’re not going to be as good as we want to be.”
Rosa provided the biggest hit in the first couple weeks when he singled in Garmhausen in the bottom of the seventh inning to beat Flushing 4-3 in the opener of a doubleheader Monday at Central Michigan University. West won the nightcap 14-1.
Earlier, the Titans beat Coldwater 4-2, Hamilton 7-1, White Cloud 12-2 and Morley-Stanwood 12-1. The lone loss came in the Coldwater tournament to Fremont, Ind., 9-6.
“We’re not where we need to be, but we’re going to get better and better,” Hayes said.
Hayes was one of the standouts last season. He was 10-1 with a 0.90 ERA on the mound. At the plate, Hayes hit .418, one of four players to bat over .400.
As a team, the Titans scored 427 runs in 44 games, which is 10th on the MHSAA’s all-time runs list. West also pounded out 431 hits, also 10th all-time. The 41 wins rank sixth in MHSAA history.
“It was crazy,” Garmhausen said of last season’s offensive fireworks.
The centerfielder did his part, hitting .368 with 41 RBI, 44 hits and 47 runs.
The run to the Semifinals, where the Titans lost to eventual champion Warren DeLaSalle 3-1, was the longest in school history.
“We came from behind in every (tournament) game,” Garmhausen said. “It proved to us that we could do big things up here.”
Garmhausen has picked up where he left off. He’s currently hitting near .500.
Hayes, meanwhile, has pitched in two games. He went five innings, allowing no earned runs, three hits and striking out 10 in the win over Hamilton. He also went the first six innings in Monday’s triumph over Flushing, surrendering two earned runs and striking out nine.
Sophomore Brendan Pierce earned the win in the nightcap to improve to 2-0. Mike Laracey, Dan Ayling and Colin Campbell are all 1-0.
“I always tell my teams pitching and defense will win you games,” Bocian said. “Then you see if you can scrape across a few runs. That was our motto last year. It just so happened we had some kids (explode at the plate), and others followed.”
Garmhausen, Hayes, Laracey, Rosa, Ayling, A.J. Ruskowski, Sam DeKuiper and Tristan Reeves have wielded the hots bats this season.
Three of those players – Garmhausen, Hayes and Rosa – have particularly interesting backstories.
Garmhausen’s father, Brad, was a three-sport star at Frankfort in the early 1980s, earning all-state recognition in football, basketball and baseball. He coached Gavin in Little League.
His advice to his son?
“Keep working, keep a positive attitude and things will go your way,” Gavin said.
Gavin, 18, plays two sports. He was on the West varsity hockey team four years and was named to the Traverse City Record-Eagle Dream Team for his play this past winter.
Garmhausen is in his third year on the varsity baseball team. He bats leadoff and plays centerfield.
He describes himself as “a hard worker, a leader, a guy that wants to win, a guy that wants to set an example for his teammates.”
His coach agrees with that assessment.
“He loves the sport,” Bocian said. “He wants to succeed as much as anybody. He has a lot of tools. He’s put a lot of time into getting where he’s at – and it shows.”
Garmhausen plans to play baseball at Bradenton Inspiration Academy in Florida next school year before enrolling in college.
Hayes, a 6-foot-7 junior, is a bona fide three-sport star. He’s one of the state’s top football recruits in the 2018 class. Hayes holds 11 scholarship offers, including from University of Michigan, Michigan State and Notre Dame. A tight end-defensive end for the Titans, Hayes is being recruited as an offensive tackle.
The junior was the most valuable player in the Big North Conference in basketball. He led the Titans to the Class A Regional Finals – the best boys basketball tournament run in school history.
He also comes from an athletic family. His older brother Connor, also a lineman, signed with University of Pittsburgh out of high school. His father, Mike, was an offensive lineman at Central Michigan University. His mother Sue (Nissen) Arthur starred in basketball at CMU. She’s the school’s second all-time leading scorer and was a freshman All-American and a three-time first-team Mid-American Conference honoree. Arthur was inducted into CMU’s Hall of Fame in 2001.
(Incidentally, at CMU, Arthur played with Traverse City’s Suzy Merchant, Molly (Piche’) Russell and Wendy (Merriman) Sherwin and Gaylord St. Mary’s Lori (McCluskey) Phillips. While Merchant is now the women’s basketball coach at MSU, Arthur, Sherwin and Phillips all reside in Traverse City and their children have gone on to success at three different schools.
Sherwin’s three sons – Ben, Sam and Jack – were linemen on Traverse City Central’s 9-2 football team last fall that won a second consecutive Big North Conference title. Their offensive line position coach? Their father, Greg, a former lineman at CMU. Ben, a senior, signed with Ferris State.
Phillips’ son, Noah, plays basketball at Grand Valley State. The 6-8 Phillips averaged 19.8 points and 7.2 rebounds his senior season at St. Francis. Juliana, a current senior at St. Francis, just earned all-state laurels in basketball, to go with similar honors in volleyball. She’ll attend St. Louis University on a volleyball scholarship in the fall.)
In another year, Ryan Hayes will be gearing up for college. He planned to make a decision where – and notify college football coaches – late this summer, but that timetable has been moved up.
For now, he’s enjoying baseball. And when asked if there’s a sport he doesn’t like, he laughs.
“Not really,” he said. “I like them all.”
Hayes has a fastball that’s been clocked at 89 miles per hour, he said, although he hasn’t thrown that hard in this cold, spring weather. Still, he has 19 strikeouts in 11 innings.,
“Ryan came in last year as a sophomore, not projected to be our No. 2 starter, and he ended up 10-1,” Bocian said. “When you look at his athleticism, and the opportunities he has as a player in all three of his sports, it’s mindboggling.”
Like Ben Sherwin, Carson Rosa signed to play football at Ferris State.
It’s where Rosa’s father, Mark, played baseball after a standout career at Clare High School. Mark Rosa was inducted into the Clare Hall of Fame in 2013.
Carson Rosa’s senior football season was interrupted by injury. The 6-5, 220-pound senior quarterback had led the Titans to impressive wins over Midland and Grand Haven to start what looked like a promising season. Then, in a week three showdown with Traverse City Central, he dislocated his right ankle and broke his fibula when he was hit attempting a pass and his cleat caught in the artificial turf.
Incredibly, he returned after six weeks to start West’s playoff game, also against Central.
“My doctor, Dr. (Tom) O’Hagan, planted the seed in my mind that it was going to be at least a six-week recovery,” Rosa said. “That meant I was going to strive for that six weeks. All I was focused on was school and rehab.”
Rosa wondered if college coaches would back off. Not all did.
“I got a couple texts,” he said. “They were like, ‘Sorry to hear about your injury. We’d still like to have you as part of our team in the future.’ That was nice to know because I wasn’t going to get a senior year to prove (myself).”
Ferris was one of the schools that kept in touch.
“They see me as an athlete who has the potential to play multiple positions, not just quarterback,” Rosa said. “I could be an H-back.”
Rosa also played three sports until this season. He gave up basketball since his ankle was still sore.
“I wanted to be 100 percent ready for baseball,” he said. “I love baseball. It was my sport until I started playing football in eighth grade. But I still love it and I did not want to sacrifice the season that we’re going to have because I knew we were returning some good talent – and I was going to get to play with my best friends.”
Rosa is off to a hot start. He belted a two-run homer in the Morley Stanwood tournament.
“He’s got all the tools to be successful,” Bocian said. “He’s a gamer. When it’s game time, that’s when Carson is at his best.”
Now, if the weather would just improve. West might still be a couple weeks away from hosting its first twinbill. In the meantime, the Titans are hitting the road. Their travels will take them to Grand Rapids Forest Hills Northern on Saturday.
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 West pitcher Ryan Hayes works on a hitter during last season’s Division 1 Semifinal loss to Warren DeLaSalle. (Middle) Gavin Garmhausen, also here against DeLaSalle, joins Hayes among returning starters this spring.
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.)