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New athletic director trying to instill ‘Rocket Dawg’ mentality at Reeths-Puffer

Former Whitehall wrestling and football coach Cliff Sandee adjusting to new role at R-P.

Reeths-Puffer athletic director Cliff Sandee is pictured during the Greater Muskegon Athletic Association girls golf tournament Wednesday, Sept. 23, 2021, at Stonegate Golf Club in Twin Lake, Mich. Sandee, who is a former Whitehall teacher and coach, officially began his AD duties in June. (Scott DeCamp | CatchMark)

MUSKEGON — Hiring seven new head coaches may seem a little daunting for a first-year high school athletic director, but it didn’t seem to faze Reeths-Puffer’s Cliff Sandee too much.

They weren’t his hires, per se, as he was making the transition from assistant principal to AD. Regardless, he and wife Rebecca have three children ages 8-and-under, who are all involved in extracurricular activities, so he’s accustomed to a whirlwind lifestyle.

“That makes Tuesday and Thursday nights busy: Shea (4 years old) is playing soccer, Declan’s (8) playing football and (Cadigan, 6) is in ballet, so we’re all over the place right now,” Sandee, 39, said.

“I know I’ll never be a first-year AD and hire seven new coaches in the same year (again).”

In recent months, Reeths-Puffer has hired new varsity head coaches in boys basketball, bowling, competitive cheer, girls soccer, hockey, lacrosse and wrestling.

Former Whitehall boys basketball coach Nate Aardema was hired as Reeths-Puffer’s coach in May. He is well-familiar with Sandee, who taught and coached wrestling and football at Whitehall for 12 years.

Sandee is a few years removed from Whitehall. He departed for Reeths-Puffer after he accepted an administrative position as assistant to now-retired principal Dan Beckeman.

In June, Sandee officially took over as R-P’s athletic director. He succeeded Tony Schmitt, who is now the district’s virtual school coordinator, but still assists with game management for Rockets athletic events.

“A couple of steps going from coaching kids and teaching kids to assistant principal – that was a totally different leap and I loved it, I learned a ton,” said Sandee, who has also made stops at Coldwater and Kenowa Hills. “But I was so excited to have the footprint in growing a culture in a community.

“I love high school athletics and being brought back into that fold, I missed it the last three years. And getting to be around all high school athletics rather than just my two focus areas of football and wrestling, that’s been fun.”

Sandee is a Grand Rapids Union alumnus. He played football for Scott Van Essen, the former Newaygo head coach and athletic director, who is now back at Union as an assistant. Sandee said he still pulls for Union, “except for Week 9 this year,” when Reeths-Puffer closes the regular season on the road against the Red Hawks.

Sandee also wrestled at Union. In fact, he recalls seeing Steve Edwards – superintendent at Reeths-Puffer – coaching against him with Byron Center back in the day.

“I looked up to him then and had a great relationship, and obviously I wasn’t wearing a No. 58 jersey,” Sandee said, referring to Reeths-Puffer assistant superintendent Rob Renes, a former standout defensive lineman at West Ottawa and University of Michigan. “What D-lineman didn’t want to be Rob Renes?”

Sandee called Schmitt a “salt of the earth guy” and noted Schmitt’s background as a former football player at Grand Valley State. He alluded to the leadership traits of Reeths-Puffer assistant elementary principal Paul Siembida, the former Muskegon Catholic Central football standout, who went on to become an All-American at GVSU.

Sandee considers Beckeman one of his greatest friends and his mentor, saying, “He can make any person feel good in their skin.”

Sandee comes from an athletics and coaching background. His brother, Brent Sandee, is head varsity football coach at Hudsonville.

Sandee thinks fondly of his Whitehall days, but he’s excited for the future at Reeths-Puffer. Thinking of how he helped hire coaches who just might be coaching his own children down the road makes him feel good.

His style has long been one emphasizing toughness and grit. That’s a big reason Reeths-Puffer started a weekly “Rocket Dawg of the Week” award that it presents to one of its athletes.

“We’re a white-, blue- and no-collar community – kind of that melting pot – but we’re tough and we want to highlight and celebrate our toughness and we’re starting to show that,” Sandee said.

“Volleyball had a great win against Shores last night, tennis is playing better than they’ve ever played and getting their numbers out. Liam (Smith) scored (five) goals last night,” Sandee said last Wednesday, when he was helping run the Greater Muskegon Athletic Association girls golf tournament at Stonegate Golf Club. “Trying to grow all sports, but the excitement for all sports, too.”

Lead writer for CatchMark SportsNet and Web Services leader for CatchMark Technologies.

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