Cody Kater remembers all those imaginary championships so vividly that he won playing football and basketball as a youngster on his parents’ three-acre lot in rural White River Township.
“I used to shoot hoops on that court (in the driveway) until 11, 12 at night. Music going, ball bouncing. I’m surprised neighbors never really had a problem with it,” he quipped.
“That’s all we talked about (was making the winning play). I had a neighborhood friend, Anthony Mulder, across the street and one of us would always have another buddy over and we’d do the whole football and basketball thing.”
About 20 years have passed, and Kater has been able to live out his dreams as an athlete. Now, he’s trying to help young people chase their dreams through the coaching profession.
The last year has been a whirlwind for Montague’s favorite son, but the winding road has led him back home. Recently, Kater was introduced as head varsity football coach at Reeths-Puffer High School. It’s his first head-coaching position in the sport that largely established his name in his hometown and across the Muskegon area.
“Growing up and playing hoops (and football), the amount of state championships that I’ve won in my backyard or on my court at my house, that’s the piece that I never want to die because of how important it was for me to be able to compete and win and how much fun I found in that and how it truly was enjoyable,” Kater, 30, said in a reflective tone.
“And I was able to live that out – I was one of the lucky ones that had that experience.”
Kater became a household name in Montague. He quarterbacked the Wildcats to their first two state football titles in 2008 and 2009. The 2010 alumnus was a key cog in the basketball team making an historic run to Breslin Center for the state semifinals and, at one time, he was his school’s all-time leading scorer.
After playing Division I college football, Kater returned to his old stomping grounds and transitioned to teaching and coaching. He led the strength-and-conditioning program at Montague. He became a fixture on the school’s football staff during a highly successful six-year run. In five seasons as girls head varsity basketball coach, he helped build the Wildcats into a conference- and district-title contender.
The year 2021 was a life-changer for Kater personally and professionally in many ways:
- He and Hannah McLouth married in the mountains of Estes Park in Colorado, surrounded by family in a beautiful setting. “It was emotional coming out of Colorado because my whole family had gone out there. We have a really cool picture that I just gave my mom. She got a little teary-eyed because it was all of her family,” Kater said. “It was her whole family, and now the grandchildren, and we’re up on top on this mountain … .”
- As Montague’s offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach, he helped the Wildcats complete a perfect 2020 season in January and capture a third state title amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
- He guided Montague’s girls basketball team to the first unbeaten regular season in program history, including a second-straight West Michigan Conference championship, plus a district title.
- Kater was thought to be a frontrunner for the Montague head-coaching position when Pat Collins resigned, but instead he accepted the offensive coordinator position at Muskegon High School.
- He was set to teach and coach with the Big Reds before an opportunity arose with Michigan High School Football Coaches Association Hall of Fame coach Noel Dean at Tift County Schools in Georgia. He spent the 2021 football season in Tifton, Ga., where he coached and taught. He served as quarterbacks coach and director of offensive implementation for grades 6-12. He and Hannah bought a house, where they lived with their three dogs.
Kater was formally introduced to Reeths-Puffer’s existing assistant football coaches, players and parents last Monday. He patrolled the hallways at Reeths-Puffer High School for two days, getting to know staff and students and familiarize himself with the lay of the land.
In the middle of last week, Cody and Hannah Kater embarked on the 14-plus-hour trek back to Georgia so they could say their good-byes to those at Tift County who welcomed them with open arms and tie up some loose ends.
As Cody Kater digs in at Reeths-Puffer and tries to build the Rocket program, he’ll aim to do so in a “vertical alignment” that connects all levels of football in the school district and community.
Eighteen to 20 people applied for the Reeths-Puffer coaching position, according to athletic director Cliff Sandee, and Kater was selected from a group of four finalists. Sandee is impressed with Kater’s vision and relationship-building.
“Kids were lining up to talk to him today – he’s a kid magnet,” Sandee said during Kater’s introduction last week.
In addition to his football-coaching duties, Kater will be a freshman success coordinator at Reeths-Puffer. He’ll be tasked with helping freshmen make the transition to high school and connecting with those students and their families.
“I like the dude. I think he’s going to do great things with us,” said Reeths-Puffer junior Tayte VanderLeest, the son of former Muskegon Catholic Central standout Rob VanderLeest, who went on to play at University of Michigan. “I’m super excited for this year. He’s making big promises and I’m ready. I like how he’s talking about fighting, starting right now, and that’s what we need. I like his confidence, his demeanor.”
Sandee senses a certain grit or chip on the shoulder from Kater, like he’s coming in with something to prove despite all his previous successes.
Sandee knows all about Kater’s confidence and leadership abilities having coached against him when the former was at Whitehall and latter playing QB at Montague. Even back then, Sandee noticed how Kater made everybody around him better.
“Yeah, we couldn’t beat him – thanks for rubbing it in,” Sandee said with a grin. “I wasn’t the head coach then. I was coaching the offensive line. I remember he was just better than us. We schemed against him, prepared against him and assumed that they’d pick some points up because of him and they picked up a little bit more than we could overcome.”
Kater admits he has much to learn as a new head coach. But one thing he can always draw from is the way he was raised.
He learned by watching hard-working parents Brad and Dee Kater, and also from idolizing and getting roughed up by older brothers Derek and Kyle.
“They delivered a dream to all their boys, that you get a chance to kind of follow your passion, and that’s the cool thing,” Kater said about his parents.
“I was Montague through and through. I only knew Montague. I tagged along with my brothers everywhere.”
There is a sizeable gap in age between Kater and his brothers: Derek is 10 years older, while Kyle is seven years older. Cody always aspired to be like Kyle, who also was a standout athlete and went on to play college football at Valparaiso.
Cody Kater recalls a specific moment when his dad told him, “Kyle thinks you might be able to be a better athlete than him.” It meant the world to the young Kater, who has been a student of the game from a young age.
Kater may have taken some lumps but being the youngest of three brothers had some advantages.
“I tell a lot of the younger kids now that they just need to sit down and watch (at games). Being with my parents all the time, when I started getting around that age – 7, 8, 9, 10 – my parents wouldn’t allow me to go just run loose throughout the hallways or behind the field to play football or anything like that. They had me sit and watch. It made it important to me,” Kater said.
“I got to see how important it was to my brothers; I got to see how important it was to those coaches and the other kids, at a very young age. I’m impressionable (and he learned) that sport matters, competition matters.”
Kater has been faced with some tough decisions in the last year – leaving Montague for Muskegon, then Muskegon for Tift County, then Tift County for Reeths-Puffer – but he’s thrilled to be back home, close to his support system.
Not to be overlooked, he said this move back to Michigan does not happen without the support of his wife and the flexibility of her position as an executive assistant with MOKA.
“It was kind of fun, exciting, being away from (Michigan), but there’s the other piece of taking that next step in your life and having that comfort level but also having those people there to help improve your life in ways, like your family and your friends,” Kater said.
“Looking at it, the biggest draw (coming back home) was working in a community and working with a kid that’s similar to what I had growing up, just experience-wise through the home life, through the coaches, and how they want to develop their programs and the relationships they want to have within the community.”
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