Travis Ambrose and Jaxson Whitaker love to compete, and they love their school.
The good friends, who are best known around Muskegon Reeths-Puffer as basketball players, were recruited onto the football team this fall and both made an immediate impact at receiver – with Ambrose getting a Division I scholarship offer from Central Michigan University before playing a varsity game.
Last spring, for the heck of it, they played on the tennis team for the first time and crushed it in doubles.
So last week, when the senior duo – arguably one of the best inside-outside tandems in the entire state – led the Rockets to a convincing 63-45 victory at state-ranked Muskegon (the Big Reds’ first home regular-season loss in three years), it was a source of immense pride.
“We wanted to show people that Muskegon isn’t the only basketball power in this area,” explained Ambrose, a 6-foot-8 center who dominated the game on both ends with a triple-double of 24 points, 14 rebounds and 10 blocks.
“People on the East Side think it’s only Muskegon and no one else. We want people to know about Reeths-Puffer.”
Puffer followed up that epic win with another Friday night at rival Muskegon Mona Shores to improve to 15-1 overall and 9-0 in the Ottawa-Kent Conference Green, and jumped into the state’s Associated Press Division 1 rankings this week at No. 9, one spot behind Muskegon.
“It was a great week for our school,” said third-year R-P coach Nate Aardema. “It meant a lot to get a win like that at Muskegon and that it wasn’t fluky, like banking in a 3-pointer at the buzzer to win. We earned it.”
The Rockets, whose only loss came back on Dec. 15 against Hudsonville, are now in position to end a nearly 40-year drought without a conference championship.
It was actually 1985 when R-P won the Seaway Conference title behind star center Mark Hughes, who went on to captain Michigan to a national championship and is now an executive with the Los Angeles Clippers. That was also the last year the Rockets won a District championship.
Aardema knows his team still faces a difficult road to capture those titles, starting with a home rematch Friday night against Muskegon.
That road got rougher Monday night, when Ambrose injured his hip in practice, forcing him to miss Tuesday’s home game against Holland. His absence left a hole in the lineup, especially on the defensive end, as the Rockets barely held on for their 12th straight win, 67-64, after beating the Dutch by 32 points in their first meeting this season.
Ambrose, who grew up in California and came back to his mother’s hometown of Muskegon his freshman year so he could play sports during the COVID-19 pandemic, is hopeful he will be back for Friday’s rematch with Muskegon.
Ambrose (6-8, 240 pounds) is an extremely mobile big man who is averaging 19.5 points per game (and shoots 65 percent from the floor), along with 10.1 rebounds and 3.4 blocks.
His athletic ability was so apparent that CMU football made him an offer at its summer camp, before he had even played a varsity snap. Ambrose validated Central’s confidence with a breakout season last fall – finishing with 25 catches for 304 yards and seven TDs while being recognized as the team’s best blocker at tight end.
“When he got that offer to Central for football, he was in the gym that same day working on basketball,” said Aardema. “I asked him if he was still all-in for basketball, and he told me: ‘Of course. I don’t want to let my team down.’”
Whitaker, a 6-4 shooting guard, was the other key receiver last fall for the Rockets, who finished 7-3 and nearly knocked off Muskegon and Mona Shores on the gridiron as well.
“I’m super-glad that I decided to play football my senior year,” said Whitaker, who, like Ambrose, was recruited by coach Cody Kater after not playing football his junior year. “I learned so much from our coaches and the other guys on the team. It was a great experience overall.”
Whitaker, who was committed to Ferris State for basketball, is a lethal 3-point shooter who can also use his size and strength to drive to the basket. He is the school’s all-time leader in 3-point shooting and averages 17 points, five assists and four rebounds per game.
Whitaker stepped up with Ambrose out of the lineup Tuesday, going off for 31 points (including six 3-pointers) to go along with six rebounds.
The other senior starter for R-P is 6-4 Antrel Jones, a great passer on the hardwood who, appropriately, was the Rockets’ quarterback on the football field. Jones averages six points, six rebounds and three assists per game.
Rounding out the starting lineup are 6-4 junior Brayden Mitchelson (7.0 points, 5.0 rebounds, 3.0 assists) and 6-1 sophomore Marvin Moore (9.0 ppg), who made four clutch free throws Tuesday night to preserve the victory over Holland.
In addition to the second showdown with Muskegon on Friday, the Rockets have another huge game on Feb. 17 against No. 5-ranked North Farmington at the Wilson Chandler Invitational at Grand Rapids Catholic Central. R-P then ends the regular season with tough league matchups against Zeeland East and Zeeland West.
Whitaker said the key to the remainder of the season, in addition to getting Ambrose back on the court and healthy, will be overcoming the Rockets’ lack of basketball tradition and truly believing they belong in big games in March.
“We should have the mindset that we are one of the best teams in the state,” said Whitaker. “If we believe that and play with that focus and confidence, we should keep winning games.”
Tom Kendra worked 23 years at The Muskegon Chronicle, including five as assistant sports editor and the final six as sports editor through 2011. E-mail him at [email protected] with story ideas for Muskegon, Oceana, Mason, Lake, Oceola, Mecosta and Newaygo counties.
PHOTOS (Top) Muskegon Reeths-Puffer’s starters including Travis Ambrose (21) and Jaxson Whitaker (5) huddle before the start of Friday’s win over Mona Shores. (Middle) Ambrose dunks against Zeeland East. (Below) Whitaker gets to the lane as Sailors defenders converge. (Photos by Joe Lane/Joe's Creative Expressions.)