By Geoff Kimmerly
Second Half editor
Brownstown Woodhaven baseball coach Corey Farner was reading last month about Homer breaking its 2005 record for consecutive innings without giving up a run, and he had an idea.
What he uncovered was an unknown chapter to one of the state's best high school sports stories this spring.
Homer had broken its previous record of 44 straight shutout innings with 48 consecutive during April and the first week of May. When Farner checked May 15, Woodhaven was at 43 straight shutout innings, beginning with the second of a game May 1 against Wyandotte Roosevelt.
When the Warriors gave up their next run during the fourth inning May 17 against Melvindale, the shutout streak had reached 60 – surpassing Homer’s 48, and also 45 straight Frankfort had strung together to break the original 2005 record earlier this spring.
"You would think there was some pressure on them going through the season, and there really wasn't," Farner said of his players. "I'm naïve, but I think they were completely unaware of anything going on with the 60-inning streak, and most of them didn't know we broke it until I told them after the (Melvindale) game. I didn't let them know what was going on because, frankly, I didn't know until five hours before that."
The scoreless inning streak set Woodhaven apart among candidates to be named MHSAA/Applebee’s "Team of the Month" for May. But again, that’s been but one highlight of what might already go down as the best season in program history.
The Warriors are 30-5 and won their fourth straight Downriver League title. They entered the postseason ranked No. 9 in Division 1 by the state baseball coaches association. And then they claimed their first District title in program history with a sweep of Monroe and Temperance Bedford on Saturday.
Success is nothing new to Woodhaven under Farner, who came over from Taylor Kennedy four seasons ago and has led the Warriors to a combined record of 118-24 to go with those four league titles.
He’s developed a program with impressive depth. Six pitchers took part in the scoreless streak – seniors Drew Szczepaniak, Justin Charron, Alonzo Chavez and Jacob Outland and juniors Colin Czajkowski and Kyle Ray – and all six have at least three wins on the mound, led by Szczepaniak (8-1, 0.98 ERA, 100 strikeouts) and Czajkowski (5-0, 1.23 ERA). Szczepaniak will continue his career next season at Western Michigan University, and Czajkowski has committed to sign with University of Michigan.
The offense actually jumpstarted the team’s roll this spring, and Charron leads with a .466 average followed by Czajkowski (.412), Szczepaniak (.381) and Ray (.378).
The team is led in part by seven seniors, half of whom came up to varsity as sophomores, and Farner could tell something was special with this group. The Warriors already have made a season’s worth of history for most, but have the opportunity to make more at Saturday’s Regional at Southgate Anderson, where they’ll take on Dearborn Edsel Ford and then with a win face either reigning Division 1 champion and current No. 10 Saline or Plymouth.
“This year, something was different,” Farner said. “The team chemistry is a lot better. The leadership is a ton better than it’s been in the past. It’s very difficult to try to develop leaders – it’s something they have to do and make that decision – and we have a good senior class that hold everybody accountable.
“And for them, there’s wasn’t a ton of pressure on them. They knew what they could do, and they just went out and were able to execute it.”
Past Teams of the Month, 2017-18
April: Detroit Catholic Central boys lacrosse - Report
March: Brighton hockey - Report
February: Marquette girls and boys skiing - Report
January: Sterling Heights Stevenson competitive cheer - Report
December: Cadillac boys bowling - Report
November: Ottawa Lake Whiteford football - Report
October: Beaverton volleyball - Report
September: Shepherd girls golf - Report
PHOTOS: (Top) Woodhaven's Drew Szczepaniak makes his move toward the plate this season. (Middle) The Warriors take a photo after a sweep of Taylor Kennedy on May 15. (Photos courtesy of the Woodhaven baseball program.)
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.)