By Ron Pesch
Special for Second Half
The MHSAA Baseball and Softball Finals will join girls soccer’s championship games in concluding the 2018-19 school year next weekend, June 13-15, at Michigan State University.
Forty years ago, baseball was concluding its ninth season with MHSAA playoffs, while softball was completing its fifth. The metro Detroit area emerged with six of the eight championships awarded, with the Detroit Catholic League earning four of those six titles as games were played at eight sites around the state.
Here’s a flashback to those 1979 championship rounds:
Among the tournament surprises was the defeat of Birmingham Brother Rice (23-3), winner of the Detroit Catholic League title and favorite to win Class A. Rice blew a 3-0 lead and fell to Flint Carmen 5-3 in a Regional Semifinal. At the time, winners of Regionals immediately advanced to the MHSAA Semifinal round.
Twice beaten by Brother Rice during the regular season and runner-up to the Catholic League crown, Detroit Catholic Central posted wins over Center Line and then St. Clair Shores Lake Shore in Regional play to advance to the final round. A 7-4 victory over Adrian in the Semifinal meant the Shamrocks filled one side of the title-game bracket.
On the other side, Port Huron Northern cut down Flint Carmen, 4-2, in the Regional Final, then slipped past East Kentwood on a game-saving catch by future Oakland A’s prospect Tony Moncrief. Trailing 2-1, East Kentwood loaded the bases in the seventh inning with only one out. A bunt, fielded by Northern pitcher Steve Campau and relayed to catcher Scott MacReady, forced the second out of the inning. After two quick strikes by Campau, Kentwood’s Jeff Bartoszek laced a shot to left-center, but Moncrief brought the crowd to their feet with a last-second diving catch to retire the side, and the Huskies advanced to the championship contest.
In the Final, DCC scored single runs in both the first and third innings off starter MacReady, then added two runs in both the fifth and sixth innings off reliever Norm Fretenborough for a 6-1 lead. Junior Chris Sabo, a future National League Rookie of the Year and three-time all-star with the Cincinnati Reds, had a triple and two singles and drove in a pair of runs for the Shamrocks. A seventh inning rally by Northern loaded the bases with nobody out. The Huskies scored three runs to pull within two, 6-4, before running out of steam.
Craig Herberholz, a late-round draft pick of the Kansas City Royals, entered the game for Catholic Central in the fourth inning after starter Jeff Evans was struck in the leg by a line drive. Herberholz earned the win, finishing the year with a 9-3 mark. The final round games were played at Battle Creek’s Bailey Park.
Southgate Aquinas’ all-state southpaw, Paul Assenmacher, allowed three hits and struck out nine as Aquinas grabbed a 5-1 victory over South Haven in Class B, hosted at Pontiac Northern High School. Runner-up in 1978, Aquinas ended the year 25-11. South Haven committed an uncharacteristic seven errors during the game, but the biggest blow came in the third inning when starting pitcher Paul Dulik was hit by a line drive just below the knee. A bruised shin meant he was done for the day. With the game scoreless through four innings, Aquinas scored three times in the fifth and twice in the sixth, while South Haven scored its lone run in the sixth.
Assenmacher, who went on to a 14-year MLB career as a relief pitcher, allowed 35 hits and seven earned runs over 86 innings that season, while striking out 113 batters. With the win, he ended the spring with a 10-3 record.
In Class C at Marshall High School, Allen Park Cabrini picked up its first MHSAA Finals baseball title behind the arms of righthander Pat Burns and Steve Nowak. Burns, a senior slinger, won five of the Monarchs’ seven tournament games including an 11-1 two-hit victory in the Semifinal over Lansing Catholic Central. Novak allowed four scattered hits and struck out eight in the title game, a 2-0 win over Clare, before a crowd of 400. The fourth inning provided all the scoring needed as Jerry Jourdan drove home Tim Wylie with a single to left, followed by Chuck White coming home on an error.
It was the third trip to the final rounds for Cabrini and coach Don Oboza. The team posted a 118-47 mark over the previous six seasons, falling in MHSAA Semifinals in 1976 and 1978.
In Class D, Pete Worchester went 3-for-3 in Grosse Pointe University Liggett’s 4-3 win over Frankfort, played at Wyoming. Kevin Wohlfield pitched five innings, while Jack Roberts tossed the final two for the winner.
In Class A at Southfield, coach Gary Bryce’s Royal Oak Dondero squad slipped past Grand Ledge 2-1 in extra innings. With the game scoreless through three, Grand Ledge’s Kelly Lawrence singled to open the fourth inning, then star pitcher Bonni Kinne doubled to left to drive in Lawrence, breaking the deadlock. Dondero’s left fielder Kathie Bell ran down a pair of fly balls, followed by a spectacular diving catch by second baseman Beth Fistler to close out the inning, stranding Kinne.
Fistler got Dondero on the scoreboard in the fifth with a single, stole second then advanced to third on a dropped third strike. She scored on a sacrifice to center by first baseman Mena Reyman, knotting the game at 1-1. Dondero’s Sue Larke reached second on an error in the ninth, then scored on another error for the win. It was the first state title for the Oaks since the fall of 1935 when the school, then known simply as Royal Oak, claimed a state title in football (according to media rankings; MHSAA Football Playoffs weren’t introduced until 1975).
Dondero’s Sandy Taylor dealt a four-hitter, picking up her 25th win against two defeats, and with catcher Diane Ashcraft earned all-state honors.
Bryce, who coached Dondero for five seasons, compiling a 130-36 mark, was named Coach of the Year. He is now in his 38th season as head coach of the softball program at Wayne State University.
In a rematch of the 1978 title game, Fenton repeated as Class B champion, downing South Haven 10-4 in a game played at Ionia High School. Pitcher Barb Barclay upped her season mark to 25-2 with the win. She ended her high school career with a 61-5 record including a 45-game winning streak, four no-hitters, and mention in Sports Illustrated’s “Faces in the Crowd.” Dee Ann Moore went 5-for-5 in the contest, scoring four times and garnering five RBI. Pat Witt had a three-run homer for the winners. It was South Haven’s third consecutive runner-up finish. Fenton, under coach Dave Lazar, would pick up its third straight title in 1980.
St. Joseph Lake Michigan Catholic scored three times in the eighth inning to grab a 7-4 win over Armada to earn the Class C crown, its first MHSAA Finals title in any sport. Catcher Mary Beth Borlik went 3-for-4 in the title game with three RBI. Catholic opened a first-inning 3-0 lead, featuring a triple by Borlik that pushed across two runs. Sophomore Beth Sharai picked up wins in both the semi and final contests, hosted at Clare.
In Class D, Ann Arbor Gabriel Richard’s Ellen O’Keefe tossed a two-hitter in the morning’s Semifinal, a 5-0 win over Mason County Eastern, and then held Morenci to four hits in its 4-2 title game win. O’Keefe swatted a three-run homer in the Semifinal, then doubled in a run in the championship game, played at Allendale. O’Keefe ended her college career as the winningest pitcher at Northwestern University, with 41 victories (including 16 shutouts). Today, her total ranks ninth in Wildcats history.
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) Fenton’s Barb Barclay fires a pitch in 1979 for the eventual Class B champion. (Top middle) Southgate Aquinas’ Paul Assenmacher receives a throw at first base. (Middle) Allen Park Cabrini celebrated its first MHSAA title in baseball in its third trip to the final rounds. (Below) St. Joseph Lake Michigan Catholic softball earned the school’s first MHSAA Finals championship in any sport. (Photos gathered by Ron Pesch.)
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.)