By Dean Holzwarth
Special for Second Half
HUDSONVILLE – After last year’s regular season ended, longtime Hudsonville baseball coach Dave Van Noord was on the brink of reaching a career milestone.
An early exit from the postseason tournament derailed the celebration.
Van Noord was two wins shy of joining an elite class of coaches who have won 500 games.
“I knew going into Districts last year that there was a chance, but then we lost in Districts and I didn’t think about it much,” Van Noord said. “Then this season started and I saw a plaque in the press box and I thought, ‘Oh man, this is going to happen this week.’”
Following Spring Break, Van Noord did reach the 500-win plateau with his team’s 6-1 victory over Zeeland East on April 13.
The victory was another milestone for one of the state’s top baseball programs – but also for the Eagles’ dominating programs on both diamonds.
Softball coach Tom Vruggink, who turns 66 next month, has been a mainstay at Hudsonville for 35 years and instrumental in turning that program into a state powerhouse.
Vruggink has nearly doubled Van Noord’s win total. He began the 2016 campaign with a 941-243 record and is the eighth all-time winningest coach in MHSAA softball history.
Combined, Van Noord and Vruggink have more than 1,400 wins.
“That’s incredible, isn’t it?” Van Noord said. “I wish I had his pitchers through the years, and they’ve had some incredible teams. He has a special way with girls.”
Van Noord, 53, is in his 22nd season as the Eagles’ head coach. He began his coaching career in 1991 at Lakewood Lake Odessa, where he spent two years before receiving a teaching job in Hudsonville.
He replaced longtime coach Larry Byle, who retired in 1994.
Van Noord has received help through the years from longtime assistant coach Joe DeSmit, and support from his wife, Sue.
“We’ve coached together 21 years, and there is no way I would’ve been able to stay in it without Joe,” Van Noord said. “We basically co-coach together, and my wife has put up with so much, especially my bad moods when the team’s not playing well. I wish the older that I get, the better I would be with losing, but I’m not.”
Van Noord said he was thrilled to accomplish the feat with this year’s group, which started 4-1 before suffering a four-game losing skid.
“It was cool for this team to do it,” he said. “Joe and I really like this team. We didn’t play very well last week, but the first week was good. It feels like a classic Hudsonville team.”
The Eagles were competitive through the early stages of Van Noord’s career, but were unable to make lengthy postseason runs.
That all changed in 2009 when the program claimed a District title. Three years later, Hudsonville won its first MHSAA Division 1 championship.
“We always thought if we could get by Jenison or Grandville, which were both good, then we could make a run and that would be sweet,” Van Noord said. “We won our first District in 2009 and went to the Quarterfinals. That’s when we got it going and started winning O-K Red championships. The state title was a cool thing to do.”
Van Noord looks back fondly on all of the players he has coached.
“I coached pairs of brother and trios of brothers and just a lot of good kids,” Van Noord said. “They believed in what we did and they worked hard. They all come from good families, and it has been special to be a part of that for so long.”
Ironically, Vruggink had aspirations to coach baseball. However, softball became his calling.
“My dream was to always get a baseball job somewhere,” said Vruggink, who began his tenure in 1982. “I got the softball job here before that and never looked back.
“It was tough at the beginning going from a male athlete coaching football and then coaching girls in softball. It’s a lot different working with girls than the boys, and that was the biggest adjustment.”
Vruggink has no regrets over his decision to stay involved in softball.
“I’ve loved it, and I think it is the best coaching job around,” he said. “I have kids who work hard and they love to play. The parents are so supportive of what the kids are doing and what we are doing as a program.”
The Eagles have won three MHSAA Division 1 championships under Vruggink’s guidance. They won back-to-back crowns in 2009 and 2010, and again in 2012.
“We’ve been very successful through the years, and all of the state championships are special in their own way,” Vruggink said. “We were close a lot of times and finally broke through in 2009 and got that first one. To do it twice in a row was special, and then we overcame a big hurdle in 2012 in our first year without Sara Driesenga (who has gone on to star at University of Michigan). That team had something to prove.”
Vruggink’s wife, Patty, has been with him every step of the way as the team’s scorekeeper.
“She’s in the dugout every game, and she’s like an assistant coach,” Vruggink said. “I bounce things off her like I would any other coach and it’s been great.”
Vruggink, who taught fourth grade for 31 years and now is retired from the classroom, isn’t showing any signs of slowing down.
Although hanging up the cleats and bat is talked about at times, he can’t imagine life without coaching.
“Right now, I’m still having fun and I get fired up every year for the beginning of the season,” Vruggink said. “It will be a difficult thing to say ‘this is my last year,’ because there’s always that next girl coming up you want to coach.”
Players from Van Noord’s past were among those who reconnected after his recent milestone win.
“They did a nice presentation for me after the game and that was cool,” Van Noord said. “I don’t look back much, and the years have added up quickly, especially the last 10 years. It’s been a whirlwind recently, but the best part of it was the social network.
“I’m tied in with so many people and I must’ve had 50-75 texts and emails from staff, former players and other coaches. It was so cool to just connect with those people again.”
Dean Holzwarth covered primarily high school sports for the Grand Rapids Press and MLive for 16 years and more recently served as sports editor of the Ionia Sentinel and as a sports photojournalist for WZZM. Contact him at [email protected] with story ideas for Allegan, Kent and Ottawa counties.
PHOTOS: (Top) Tom Vruggink (left) and Dave Van Noord both led Hudsonville programs to Division 1 titles in 2012. (Middle) Van Noord is surrounded by his players flashing five fingers after his latest milestone win. (Below) Vruggink raises his program's third MHSAA title trophy after the 2012 win. (Middle photo courtesy of Hudsonville athletic department.)
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.)