Video by Zach Zweigle | CatchMark
MUSKEGON – It was not easy for Nate Aardema to leave his Whitehall alma mater for a head-coaching position with Reeths-Puffer’s boys basketball program, but “Cream Cheese” has helped make it a smooth transition.
Aardema is off to a strong start in his first season at R-P, which improved to 3-1 with a 58-55 victory over West Ottawa in the 19th Muskegon Area Sports Hall of Fame Holiday Classic Tuesday night in the Rocket Center.
Having talented and driven players such as standout sophomores Travis “Cream” Ambrose and Jaxson “Cheese” Whitaker certainly helps. The 6-foot-7, 220-pound Ambrose was a force with 17 points, 11 rebounds and two blocks, while the 6-3, 190-pound sharpshooting Whitaker produced 15 points and four assists.
Senior Coby Mitchelson provided a spark by hitting four 3-pointers en route to 12 points for the Rockets.
“We’re 3-1 and our schedule’s been pretty tough,” said Aardema, who filled the R-P head-coaching position vacated by Lance Johnson’s resignation following six seasons at the helm. “We’re far from a finished product, but we’re playing some good basketball stretches. Now we’ve got to do it for a full game.”
Photos by Joe Lane for MASHF and Scott DeCamp for CatchMark
In this young season, Reeths-Puffer has played nothing but close games. The Rockets opened with a 65-59 overtime victory at Ludington, then lost a hard-fought 61-56 road game against a talented and experienced Grand Haven squad. R-P edged Forest Hills Northern, 51-50, at home on Dec. 17.
Ambrose and Whitaker are Reeths-Puffer’s top two scorers. They help set the tone with their work ethics and they’re close as can be.
The tandem’s “Cream Cheese” nickname derived from the fact that Whitaker’s father, Churchill Elementary principal Lowell Whitaker, and one of his college buddies were called “Cookies N Cream” back in the day. Ambrose and Jaxson Whitaker ran with the “Cream Cheese” moniker during travel ball over the summer.
As far as the Rockets’ success as a team, Aardema said that always comes down to relationships and that applies universally.
While led by youngsters, Reeths-Puffer’s early success this season is a group effort, as Aardema points out.
“I think coach Aardema coming over, he became very close with us in the little time we’ve had with him and he’s really good with building a connection with you, so that’s helped a lot,” Whitaker said.
Aardema, a 1998 Whitehall alumnus, was 154-94 in 12 seasons with the Vikings. They were 13-4 last season en route to winning the third West Michigan Conference title under his watch.
While he coached Whitehall, Aardema was employed by Montague Area Public Schools. At Reeths-Puffer, he coaches and works in the district as a physical education teacher at the high-school and middle-school levels. He said it’s a big advantage being in the building with current and potential future players.
“I don’t want to say it’s not different (at Reeths-Puffer) because it is, just in sheer size of the district and kind of the depth of the talent is a little bit deeper. We’ve coached a lot of good players, but not the kind of 1 through 14 that can all play,” Aardema said. “I’ve got guys who have not played much at all who can really play, so that’s different.
“But, really, kids are kids and they want the same thing. They want someone to believe in them, they want someone to push them at the right times and they want someone to take an interest in them off the floor and on and they want to be part of something bigger than themselves. That hasn’t been different.”
Like Reeths-Puffer’s first three opponents, West Ottawa (2-3) pushed the Rockets, although the hosts did hold the upper hand for most of the game.
Kobe Haglund and Brady Bosma paced the Panthers with 17 and 16 points, respectively, while Reid Reimink scored 10.
Aardema and his team know that the road ahead will continue to be tough in the OK Green Conference against the likes of Muskegon, Wyoming and others, but winning games or playing tough against OK Red competition such as West Ottawa and Grand Haven is a confidence-boost.
In Aardema’s words, “iron sharpens iron.”
“It shows that, like, we belong here. We’re not the underdogs anymore – we’re going to start winning some more games,” Ambrose said.
Under Johnson’s guidance, Reeths-Puffer played at a competitive level for a good portion of his tenure. Aardema hopes to build upon that foundation.
Competing in and hosting events such as the Hall of Fame Classic is a big deal, Aardema said, and he reminded his players of that.
Current Whitehall coach Christian Subdon, who was Aardema’s understudy with the Vikings, was on hand Tuesday to offer support for his mentor.
Aardema said he’ll always have a special place in his heart for Whitehall.
“I’ll always root for them,” he said. “There’s kids that I love there, and I love Christian to death. I’ll root for them forever.”
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