By Ron Pesch
Special for Second Half
This season’s MHSAA Baseball and Softball Finals will be played in two weeks, June 15-17 at Michigan State University.
As we begin to turn our attention to that grand finale for the school year, MHSAA historian Ron Pesch takes on a recollection of the diamond championships in both sports from 1977.
That season’s baseball playoffs were the seventh under MHSAA sponsorship, while softball was in its third season as an MHSAA tournament sport.
CLASS A – Four of coach Pat O’Keefe’s Grand Ledge baseball teams have advanced to the final game in the MHSAA’s top division since the start of tournament play in 1971. A standout athlete at Standish-Sterling High School, Central Michigan University and in the minor leagues in the Houston Astros organization, O’Keefe has led two Comets squads, the 2001 and the 1993 teams, to MHSAA runner-up finishes. Grand Ledge grabbed Class A championship honors in 1995, but it was the first title, earned in June of 1977, that caught everyone by surprise.
After opening the season with three victories and a single defeat, Grand Ledge dropped their next four games in a row before rallying to a 14-6 regular-season mark and a third-place finish in the Capital Area Conference. Behind solid pitching, O’Keefe saw his team’s bats come alive in the postseason. Tim Skinner had three hits, scored twice and had a pair of RBI in District games with Owosso and Brighton. With six straight tournament wins, Grand Ledge advanced to Saturday morning’s Semifinal contest at Valley Field in Grand Rapids against Sterling Heights and its pitching ace, Rick Lemanski, who was unbeaten in 12 games. Ranked No 2 in the state by the Michigan High School Baseball Coaches Association, Sterling Heights loaded the bases with two out in the fourth inning, but a pop up to first baseman Scott Kemp ended the rally. With one out, the Stallions threatened again in the fifth with runners at second and third, but the rally ended when a missed sign on a suicide squeeze resulted in a strikeout and a tag out at third, ending the inning. Following a one-out double to center, junior Mike Dyer scored the game’s only run on a play at the plate in the eighth inning to win the contest. Craig VanDerSteen picked up the win for Grand Ledge, striking out 11.
Against top-ranked Detroit Catholic Central, the unranked Comets scored twice in the second inning, three times in the fourth and once in the fifth. Craig Dukes struck out two and scattered seven hits to secure the victory for Grand Ledge, while Dyer drove home three runners, scored, and sparkled defensively from the shortstop position.
“He played like a major leaguer, and he comes through in clutch spots like nobody I’ve ever seen.” said O’Keefe. Entering the 2017 season, his 49th as skipper at Grand Ledge, O’Keefe stood atop the MHSAA’s career coaching wins list with 1,221 victories against 208 defeats and a single tie.
CLASS B – In Class B, Gibraltar Carlson pounded out a 7-1 victory over No. 1-ranked Harper Woods Bishop Gallagher. Played at Stanley O. Broome Park in Flint and delayed until Monday due to rain, the game saw the Marauders score twice in the first inning. Southpaw Craig Smith, who struck out eight in a four-hit performance, singled and then scored on Kirk Williams’ triple. Williams scored to give Carlson a 2-0 lead on a sacrifice fly by Kelly Mousseau. The Marauders scored again in the second inning when Gary Southerland singled then scored on a Brett Kahn triple. Williams notched his second triple of the game in the third, scoring the first of four runs in the inning. Following a Mousseau walk, Mark Shallhorn singled to drive in both runners. Another single by Southerland drove home Shallhorn, and following a groundout, he scored on a single by Kahn.
“This was undoubtedly the finest season in his 24 years of coaching for (John) LeFevre,” stated The Associated Press when it named him Class B all-state Coach of the Year. “He led Gibraltar-Carlson to a 28-7 record which were personal bests for most wins and winning percentage.”
CLASS C – Like O’Keefe, Blissfield’s Larry Tuttle began his coaching career in 1968. Number two on the all-time baseball win list, a mere seven wins back, Tuttle and his Royals earned their first Class C MHSAA baseball crown in 1973, then grabbed their second in 1976. At Marshall High School in 1977, Blissfield became the first Class C baseball team to repeat as champions, downing Center Line St. Clement by a score of 4-2. Trailing 2-1 headed into the fifth inning, Blissfield’s Jim DeVantier singled, stole second and third base, then scored on a wild pitch to knot things up. A bases-loaded walk to Bud Friess followed to give the Royals the lead. An insurance run in the seventh, scored by Steve Cannon on another wild pitch, gave Dave Pagel the win. Pagel, a two-time all-state selection headed to Central Michigan University, struck out seven and allowed four hits on the day. Friess also pounded out a two-run triple in Blissfield’s 5-0 win over Sanford-Meridian in the morning’s Semifinal. Mike Burgermeister went the distance for the Semifinal victory. The Royals finished the year with a 28-2 mark. St. Clement, Class C champion in 1972 and 1974, ended with a 28-8 record.
CLASS D – Mark Kelley struck out 15 in leading Ann Arbor St Thomas to a 4-3 win over Frankfort in a Class D Semifinal, then in the title game pitched the final two innings in relief to earn the win in St. Thomas’s come-from-behind 10-9 clincher over top-ranked Potterville. The games were played at Alumni Field in Mt. Pleasant. Trailing 7-4 headed into the top of the seventh inning, the Irish scored six runs on five hits, including a two-run single by Tom Dishman and a two-run double by Mike Stork to take a 10-7 lead. Potterville scored twice in its final at bat to pull within one run of the lead. With the bases loaded and one down, Kelley managed to retire the next batter with a pop-up to short, then struck out the final batter for the victory. Starting pitcher Gary Farmiloe, ousted from the title game after two innings, went 2 for 3 and scored the winning run in the Semifinal game versus Frankfort, then went 3 for 4 at the plate against Potterville with two singles and a double. St. Thomas, 5-11 at one point during the season, finished with a 15-12 record.
CLASS A – Senior Karen Searles tossed a two-hitter in Portage Central’s 10-0 victory over Temperance-Bedford in a Class A Semifinal, then allowed five hits in a thrilling 4-3 victory over Flint Carman to clinch the championship. The Mustangs opened a 3-0 advantage in the bottom of the fifth inning on a two-run single by Kim Barnes. Searles, who finished the year with a perfect 20-0 record, gave up three walks and a pair of hits in the sixth, including a two-run single by Kim Lancaster as Bedford rallied to tie the game. In the bottom of the seventh, an error allowed Karen Frank to reach first base with one out. Sacrificed to second, she scored on Sandy Surch’s third hit of the game. The Final was hosted at Memorial Field in East Detroit.
CLASS B – At Henry Robinson Park in Ionia, Roxanne Abramouski picked up her 31st victory without defeat as Grosse Ile downed South Haven, 5-3, for the Class B title. Grosse Ile opened a 3-0 lead in the first inning as Shawn Perry reached first on an error and scored following a double by Ann Perrault. A single by Allison Smith scored Perrault, while Smith later scored on another error. Patty Silye singled home a pair of runs in the fifth, expanding the lead to 5-0, before South Haven cut the margin to two with three runs in the sixth inning. A semifinalist in 1976, Grosse Ile finished the year with a flawless 33-0 record and 0.75 ERA. Abramouski continued her playing career at Ferris State, where she still ranks among the school’s pitching leaders in various categories.
“I would say it has been a pretty good year for girls athletics at South Haven,” said coach John Yelding. Earlier in the year, the Rams also finished Class B runner-up in volleyball.
CLASS C – DeWitt’s Cindy White fired a four-hitter, then went 4 for 4 at the plate to lead coach Debbie Boyd’s Panthers to a 12-5 thumping of Center Line St. Clement in the Class C championship played at Ella Sharpe Park in Jackson. White drove in five runs in the contest, notching a triple, a double and a pair of singles as DeWitt picked up its first MHSAA championship in any sport. St. Clement took a 1-0 lead in the first inning, but the Panthers exploded for five runs in the third, two in the fifth and five more in the sixth for a 12-1 lead entering the seventh. DeWitt downed Niles Brandywine, 7-1, earlier in the day to advance to the title game. The championship was especially sweet for Coach Boyd, who had announced prior to the tournament that she would step down after five years at the helm.
CLASS D – Allendale senior Ruth Crowe tossed a pair of two-hitters as the Falcons downed Waterford Our Lady of the Lakes, 10-0, in the morning’s Semifinal, then defeated Custer Mason County Eastern, 8-0, at Fink Field in Fowler. Allendale, top-ranked in Class D, scored early and often, tallying six runs in the first inning as Mason County Eastern allowed 11 hits and five unearned runs on the day. Deb McBurnett doubled to right-center in the second inning and scored on a Weez Stelland single for a 1-0 lead. Three errors, a walk and a bunt single by Crowe pushed the margin to four in the third inning. Another run on errors came in the fifth, and with two out in the sixth inning, five consecutive singles combined with errors allowed three more runs to score. Allendale ended the year with a 22-2 record, while Mason County Eastern wrapped up the season at 19-3.
Ron Pesch has taken an active role in researching the history of MHSAA events since 1985 and began writing for MHSAA Finals programs in 1986, adding additional features and "flashbacks" in 1992. He inherited the title of MHSAA historian from the late Dick Kishpaugh following the 1993-94 school year, and resides in Muskegon. Contact him at [email protected] with ideas for historical articles.
PHOTOS: (Top) The Lansing State Journal on June 19, 1977, touted Grand Ledge’s first MHSAA baseball championship. (Middle) The DeWitt softball team won its first MHSAA title in any sport that spring. (Top photo courtesy of the Lansing State Journal, bottom photo from MHSAA archives.)
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.)