By Ron Pesch
Special for Second Half
With all Spring sports canceled for 2020 because of the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s been a season of recalling fond memories as we all sit and wait for the return of high school athletics in Michigan.
This time we’re diving 40 years deep to the Baseball and Softball Finals from 1980, which saw five of eight championship games decided by two runs or fewer and mostly on late-inning dramatics while played at various parks across the Lower Peninsula.
Here’s a flashback to the 1980 championship rounds:
A strong argument could be made that Matt Costello’s ninth-inning heroics rank among the top moments in MHSAA tournament history.
In the days when the state Semifinals and Finals were played on the same day, and split across four separate sites spread across the state, an impressive 1,025 fans turned out for the Class A title game between Royal Oak Kimball and Grosse Pointe North, hosted at Wyandotte’s Memorial Park.
For Kimball, it was the fourth appearance in the state title game. The Knights, led by coach Frank Clouser, had appeared in the Class A title game for three straight years, 1971-1973, earning a championship in 1972 with a 3-1 win over Detroit Western.
It was the first appearance in the Finals for North and coach Frank Sumbera. Earlier in the year, the Norsemen had been the top-ranked team in the Michigan High School Baseball Coaches Association Class A poll, but the squad hit a mid-May speedbump. Within five hours, North dropped two games, falling to St. Clair Shores Lakeview, 6-5, then 3-2 to Harper Woods, which was undefeated and ranked No. 1 in Class C. North rebounded, and finished the regular season as the top team in the Class A rankings with a 23-4 mark.
North opened the championship game scoring with three quick runs in the first inning. Kimball made it 3-1 in the bottom half of the inning, then grabbed a 4-3 lead in the third as 6-foot-4 senior Dave Kopf, (a 32nd-round draft pick of the Detroit Tigers one week earlier) crushed a three-run homer. North tied the game at 4-4 in the sixth when junior Bill Babcock led off with a double, moved to third on a sacrifice, then scored when the throw to first base on Keith Schatko’s suicide squeeze bunt went wild. Following a pop out, Costello picked up his first RBI on the day, on a double over the left fielder’s head that scored Schatko, giving North a 5-4 lead.
Babcock, who had tossed a 2-0 no-hitter earlier in the day in the Norsemen’s Semifinal against Wayne Memorial, replaced starter Tom Shook in the bottom of the sixth inning. Following a walk, Kimball’s Scott Sturley smashed a two-out triple to tie the game, 5-5.
Neither team could push across a run in the last inning of regulation play. Kimball threatened in the bottom of the eighth, notching a leadoff double. But the danger ended when North catcher Mike Seagram picked off the runner.
Sumbera told Wright Wilson of the Grosse Pointe News that the play was the “turning point of the game.”
Singles by Babcock and Scott Young and a walk by Al Lucido in the top of the ninth inning set the stage for Costello.
“I had Matt swinging away because they were charging their infielders all the time, so we were playing for the hit,” said Sumbera to the Detroit Free Press following the title contest.
“I was just trying to get the run in when I went up there,” stated Costello, who “cracked a 2-2 pitch over the left field fence, more than 365 feet away.”
“When I hit it I knew it was going to be a home run. That was the greatest.”
Costello finished with three hits and an MHSAA championship game-record five RBIs, a mark that stood alone until Jacob Holt from Muskegon Catholic Central tied the record 35 years later, in 2015.
Trailing 9-5, Kimball loaded the bases in the bottom of the ninth inning and scored a run on a two-out wild pitch. But a pop-out to first ended the rally, and North grabbed a 9-6 win and its first diamond title.
Sumbera , who had taken the reins of the North program in 1973, would lead the Norsemen to a second title in 2006. Today, he ranks third in all-time baseball victories in Michigan after a 45-year coaching career.
Flint Powers downed Mount Pleasant 8-7 in a Class B thriller, played at Lansing’s Municipal Park. Mount Pleasant grabbed a 2-0 lead in the bottom of the second inning, before Powers’ Jim Morrissey popped a two-run homer to knot the game in the fourth. The Chargers added two more runs in the top of the fifth, but Mount Pleasant shortstop Bob Lee followed in the bottom of the inning with a two-run shot that tied the game at 4-4.
Powers took a 7-4 lead in the sixth inning and upped the lead to 8-4 on a Mike Morgan bases-loaded single in the seventh. With the game on the line, Mount Pleasant’s Scott Tuma blasted a two-out, three-run homer to cut the margin to 8-7. Morgan, who tossed a five-hit shutout complete game for Powers in its win over Farmington Hills Harrison earlier in the day, allowed two more runners before striking out pinch-hitter Todd Tuma to end the game.
Rain delayed the second Class C Semifinal game and postponed the championship contest until Monday, June 16. Leading 5-0 after three innings, Dundee finished off Lansing Catholic Central 7-2, then topped Parchment 3-1 for its first and only baseball crown. Norm Pentercs, who would later pitch at Grand Valley State, struck out 11 and allowed only four hits in the title game. Those games were played at Broome Park in Flint.
A seventh-inning walk-off bases-loaded single by Scott Trudell broke a 1-1 deadlock to give Grass Lake a 2-1 win over Muskegon Western Michigan Christian in Class D, hosted at Marshall High School. David Knoll allowed just three hits and struck out 13 for the win. It was the second appearance in a Final on the year for WMC, which fell to Detroit East Catholic in an MHSAA basketball championship game in March.
Veronica Miller’s single with two outs in the fifth inning drove home Julie Guerra, snapping a 1-1 tie and propelling Flint Carman to a 2-1 victory over East Detroit and all-state pitcher Roxanne ‘Rocky’ Szczesniak in the Class A championship game. Linda Allen picked up her second win on the day. Earlier she tossed a shutout in Carman’s 14-0 victory over Holland West Ottawa. Szczesniak, who would later star at Wayne State, allowed only three hits in the contest after delivering a one-hitter in East Detroit’s 11-3 victory over Ann Arbor Huron in the Semifinal.
“Everything worked great for me today,” Deanne Moore told the Lansing State Journal after tossing a two-hit, 6-0 shutout in Fenton’s Class B Final victory over Grand Rapids Northview. “I knew I had to pitch strikes and my fastball was moving around. I threw a couple of changeups to keep them guessing.”
In the title game, Moore opened the scoring with a solo home run in the second inning. It was followed by a triple by Sandy Thornton, who scored when Theresa Flynn singled up the middle. Moore scored again in the fourth inning following sacrifices by Sue Mora and Flynn, for a 3-0 lead. Northview’s fate was sealed in the fifth as Fenton tallied three more on Thornton’s two-run single and a fielder’s choice by Lori Glass.
It was the third-consecutive Class B title for the Tigers. Moore, a senior righthander, finished with a 24-2 record and would go on to an All-American career at Michigan State, earning entry into MSU’s Hall of Fame in 1996.
Rhonda Thran added her name to the MHSAA Championship Game Record Book, knocking in five runs as Berrien Springs routed Lakeview 11-4 in the Class C title game. Thran matched the RBI record set by DeWitt’s Cindy White in the Panthers’ Class C title victory over Center Line St. Clement in 1977. The sophomore centerfielder, along with second baseman Jan Dowell, was one of two regulars who were also starters on the Shamrocks’ volleyball team that won the Class C championship during the 1979-80 winter sports season.
Junior Cindy DeFay fired a three-hitter in the championship. “The whole team really wanted this one. I had a good feeling that we were going to win so I was ready to play. It’s the best game I’ve pitched all year,” she told Jack Walkden of the Benton Harbor Herald-Palladium following the game. DeFay had “missed much of the first half of the season with a severely sprained ankle.”
In the Semifinal, Berrien Springs downed Leroy Pine River 10-8 and banged out 21 hits across the day’s two games, highlighted by five hits by both Rachel Roots and Sheila Duffel, followed with four by Thran.
A police escort guided the team and its retiring coach, Roy Rennhack, back into town after the games played across the state in Oak Park near Detroit – “More than 150 cars joined the caravan, which paraded the team through town atop firetrucks.”
“It was a perfect going away present,” said Rennhack.
It was truly an amazing sports year for the Shamrocks girls, who also won Regional titles in track and basketball. Between 1979 and 1985, Berrien Springs volleyball teams won five Finals volleyball titles. (Those squads were honored in the second year of the MHSAA’s Legends of the Game program in 1999).
In Class D, Central Lake scored a dramatic 2-1 win over Vestaburg. In the top of the seventh inning, Vestaburg had knotted the game at 1-1 before relinquishing a walk to Pam Ellison in the bottom of the inning that set things in motion for the Trojans. Ellison stole second, then advanced to third on a sacrifice by Wendy Johnson. Following a walk to Wendy Baker, catcher Mary Hopp singled Ellison home for the win. Central Lake had finished as state runner-up to Laingsburg in 1978, then fell to Morenci 6-5 in the Semifinals in 1979.
“We were a pretty close-knit team,” said Ellison., recapping the rally.
“I had fantastic kids,” recalled coach Gary Johnson 40 years later. “We played a lot of big-time schools. I never had a second pitcher when I coached. Back then, if you had a girl who could throw a fastball you were at the top of the world. We had Judy Koens.“
Koens allowed just four-hits in the title game and along with Hopp was named to The Associated Press Class D all-state team as Central Lake finished 33-4. Koens would pitch at Central Michigan, posting stellar ERAs during her four seasons and earning all-Mid-American Conference honors in 1984 as a senior.
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) Berrien Springs celebrates its 1980 Class C softball championship. (Middle) Grosse Pointe North claims the Class A baseball title in its first Finals under coach Frank Sumbera. (Below) Central Lake improves from Class D softball runner-up in 1978 to champion two years later. (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."
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.)