Ambrose & Whitaker Teaming Up Again to Power Reeths-Puffer Hoops Surge

By Tom Kendra
Special for

February 7, 2024

Travis Ambrose and Jaxson Whitaker love to compete, and they love their school.

West MichiganThe 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.

Ambrose dunks against Zeeland East. “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 gets to the lane as Sailors defenders converge. 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 KendraTom 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.)

Championship Experience from Coach's Point of View Unimaginable, Unforgettable

By Dean Holzwarth
Special for

April 4, 2024

WYOMING – As the final buzzer sounded, it was all I could’ve imagined – and more.

West Michigan

In the weeks leading up to March 16 and the Division 4 championship game, I experienced every emotion possible as I envisioned what it would feel like to be an assistant coach on the bench at Michigan State’s Breslin Center as the Wyoming Tri-unity Christian boys basketball team achieved its ultimate goal.

In my first year as the junior varsity coach at Tri-unity, I had been on the varsity bench for a majority of the season, assisting legendary coach Mark Keeler and fellow assistants Brent Voorhees, Bob Przybysz and Mike Kaman.

I was there encouraging, motivating and supporting the varsity team. It was a role I embraced, and had become accustomed to over my almost 30 years coaching high school basketball.

I started coaching in 1995 as Jim Ringold gave me my first opportunity as the freshmen girls coach at Wyoming Kelloggsville High School. I would then coach Kelloggsville’s freshmen boys team for eight seasons, while also coaching the freshmen girls at Grandville High School. I would also coach the junior varsity teams at both schools.

I love coaching. I have a passion for it. I’ve always enjoyed getting the most out of my players while creating a bond between player and coach.

When girls basketball season moved from fall to winter joining the boys in 2007-08, I stayed at Grandville. I spent 21 seasons there before stepping down.

I still wanted to coach, and I heard that the Tri-unity junior varsity position was available. I had always respected and liked Keeler and was excited for the prospect of joining a perennial powerhouse.

I didn’t really know about Tri-unity growing up in the Wyoming Park school district. But as a young kid, I would rush home and eagerly await the afternoon delivery of the Grand Rapids Press. I would quickly find the sports page and read it from front to back, hoping one day to see my byline.

I began writing for the Press’ sports department in 1997. It was my dream job. And that’s also when I first started covering Tri-unity boys basketball.

I remember watching eventual NBA all-star Chris Kaman, along with Bryan Foltice and others play for this little Christian school and have unbridled success under Keeler.

MHSAA Tournament runs became the norm for the Defenders. They won their first Finals title in 1996, and they would claim four more over the next 26 years. They also had six runner-up finishes.

Tri-unity’s assistant coaches, including Holzwarth (second from right), monitor the action.I was sitting on media row writing for in 2022 when Brady Titus led Tri-unity to its fifth state championship.

I never thought that two years later I would be on the coaching staff as the Defenders pursued another one. But there I was.

I knew this year’s team had the potential to be special.

Tri-unity had returned four of its five starters from a year ago, after suffering a heart-breaking two-point loss to Munising in the Division 4 Final.

Eight seniors were on the roster. The team had a mix of talented guard play, senior leadership, size and depth. We had shooters and we played great defense, a trademark of Keeler’s teams.

This was the year, and that heaped lofty expectations on Keeler and the team. It was basically “state championship or bust.” Anything less would be considered a disappointment.

Keeler wanted it badly, and I knew the players did as well. I think they felt the pressure at times of living up to the expectations that had been set.

We had several lopsided wins, but also had a few tough losses to Division 2 and Division 3 teams – Grand Rapids Forest Hills Central, Wyoming Lee, Grandville Covenant Christian and Schoolcraft – all talented teams that I think made us better despite falling short.

As the postseason started, there was anxiety and excitement.

We were one of the favorites, but it wouldn’t be easy. We would have to earn each of the seven victories needed to win it all.

First came a District title, but then we had to play a quality Fowler team in its home gym in the Regional Semifinal. This was a game we knew would be a challenge – and it was.

We led by only one at halftime after a 7-0 run to end the second quarter. The score was tied 33-33 in the fourth quarter before senior Lincoln Eerdmans made a key 3-pointer to spark our victory.

As we went through the handshake line, several Fowler players said, “Good luck in the Finals.”

Our defense played extremely well in the Regional Final and state Quarterfinal to secure our team another trip to the Breslin.

St. Ignace was our opponent in the Semifinal, and we had to face a senior guard who could do it all – Jonny Ingalls. He lived up to the hype. He was good, and we didn’t have any answer for him in the first half. We trailed by one, only to fall behind by seven late in the third quarter.

Was this the end? Were we going to fall one game short of our goal?

Holzwarth and the coaching staff greet Keaton Blanker (4) as he comes off the floor. We were down by five points in the fourth quarter, but junior guard Keaton Blanker, and others, rose to the occasion. We rallied to win a tight one, and now we were one win away from a Division 4 title.

The night before the championship game, we stayed at a hotel in East Lansing as we had the first game of the day at 10 a.m. We had a team dinner, and the players seemed relaxed and eager to close out the season the way they had intended.

There was one thing that worried me. We were playing Mount Pleasant Sacred Heart. A team we had played in the second game of the season and defeated by 30 points.

Would we be overconfident? I had no idea. They were a different team now, but so were we. Anything could happen.

Keeler gave a spirited and emotional pregame speech. In last year’s loss to Munising, he felt like the team played not to lose, and this season his big thing was “I want to win.” He said it to every starter that Saturday morning during the final moments in the locker room before tipoff, asking all five individually to say it back – which they did, the first one quietly but followed by teammates replying louder and louder as everyone got fired up and “I want to win” rang through the locker room. I think it inspired all of us.

After a competitive first quarter, we started to find our rhythm and expanded the lead. We were ahead by double-digits at the half, and a state title was within our grasp. Senior Wesley Kaman buried a 3-pointer in the final seconds of the third quarter to give us a 20-point cushion. It was at that point I knew we were going to win.

All five starters reached double-figure scoring, led by Jordan VanKlompenberg with 19 points and Owen Rosendall with 14. That balance was intentional and a successful sign for our team all season.

The exhilaration of winning was intoxicating. I loved watching the boys celebrate something they had worked so hard to accomplish. I will never forget their faces. I looked to my right from my seat on the bench and watched them running onto the court, just wearing their joy. They were just elated.

I was so happy for Keeler, a devout Christian who is respected by so many people in high school basketball circles. I learned so much from him this season. The way he approaches each game, his competitiveness. He instills his strong faith in his players and understands that the game of basketball is a bridge to a higher purpose.

Keeler is the fourth-winningest coach in state boys basketball history with a record of 694-216, and will be the winningest active coach next winter as all-time leader Roy Johnston retired from Beaverton at the end of this season.

The tournament run was one of the best coaching experiences I have had, and I feel blessed to have had the opportunity to be a part of a state championship season.

Dean HolzwarthDean Holzwarth has covered primarily high school sports for Grand Rapids-based WOOD-TV for five years after serving at the Grand Rapids Press and MLive for 16 years along with shorter stints at the Ionia Sentinel and WZZM. Contact him at [email protected] with story ideas for Allegan, Kent and Ottawa counties. 

PHOTOS (Top) The Wyoming Tri-unity Christian bench, including the author (far right) and head coach Mark Keeler (middle), celebrate a 3-pointer late in the Defenders’ Division 4 championship win over Mount Pleasant Sacred Heart. (Middle) Tri-unity’s assistant coaches, including Holzwarth (second from right), monitor the action. (Below) Holzwarth and the coaching staff greet Keaton Blanker (4) as he comes off the floor. (Photos by Hockey Weekly Action Photos.)