VanderLeest Working to Help Reeths-Puffer Make Most of Opportunities Ahead

By Tom Kendra
Special for

September 7, 2022

Tayte VanderLeest is a prototypical receiver and safety, with great size (6-foot-4, 200 pounds) and speed (4.5 seconds in the 40-yard dash).

Muskegon Reeths-Puffer first-year coach Cody Kater also gushes about the senior’s work ethic and attitude, and concludes by saying, “He’s the kind of kid you want to date your daughter.”


“I would say he’s too nice,” said Kater, a two-time all-stater at Montague who went on to play quarterback at Grand Rapids Community College and Central Michigan. “We’d like to see him a little grittier, but he’s a gamer and I have seen him flip that switch. I expect him to do that this Friday night.”

Reeths-Puffer (2-0) plays one of its biggest football games in years Friday, when it travels across town to face Muskegon (1-1) in the Ottawa-Kent Conference Green opener for both teams.

Historically, it hasn’t been much of a game, with Muskegon holding a lopsided 22-1-1 edge in the all-time series, and with most of those games in the blowout category. Muskegon has won the past nine games by an average of 44 points.

That puts the Rockets into a somewhat ideal position – no pressure, but with the opportunity to make a huge statement.

“It’s very exciting,” said VanderLeest, a returning all-conference receiver who has received interest from several Mid-American Conference schools including Central Michigan, Eastern Michigan and Miami (Ohio). “We are 2-0, which is great, but this is the kind of game where we can really prove ourselves. We want to show that we belong in big games like this.”

Puffer opened the season with a convincing 32-20 win over visiting Grand Haven, then hit the road last Thursday for a 38-14 win over St. Johns.

Muskegon, meanwhile, has not looked like its normal dominating self thus far (although playing a pair of strong opponents certainly has been a contributing factor). The Big Reds rallied from an eight-point, fourth-quarter deficit for a 20-14 win over visiting East Kentwood in the opener, then lost 49-16 on Friday to reigning Division 2 champion Warren De La Salle Collegiate. East Kentwood bounced back last week to defeat Bloomfield Hills Brother Rice, and De La Salle hasn’t lost since the 2020 Division 2 championship game.

Some of the issues for Muskegon are injuries and youth, with 13th-year head coach Shane Fairfield looking for more seniors to step up in leadership roles.

VanderLeest cuts upfield during the 32-20 victory. VanderLeest and other strong senior leaders like quarterback Brady Ross and center/defensive tackle Hunter Allison have sparked the Rockets’ quick start. The soft-spoken VanderLeest is more of a leader-by-example, although Kater said he has noticed him becoming more vocal with the younger receivers and defensive backs.

VanderLeest is one of those players who has football in his blood, literally, as his father Rob VanderLeest was an all-state lineman at Muskegon Catholic Central and went on to play four years at Michigan under Gary Moeller and Lloyd Carr.

“Football is in my DNA,” explained Tayte VanderLeest. “It’s been part of my life as long as I can remember. Now I’m a senior, and I feel the pressure on me to live up to the standards that my dad set.”

He will play a key role defensively from his strong safety spot, where one of his main duties will be trying to tackle Muskegon’s dynamic junior duo of running back Jakob Price and slotback Destin Piggee, preventing long TD runs and forcing the Big Reds to march the ball down the field.

VanderLeest had five tackles and an interception last week at St. Johns, in a game that was tied at halftime before Puffer pulled away with a 24-0 scoring edge in the second half.

“He has a knack defensively for knowing where he needs to be and always ending up around the ball,” explained Kater, who also was the offensive coordinator at Montague during the 2020 season, helping the Wildcats to an undefeated record and the Division 6 championship. “A lot of that stuff you can’t really teach. Because of that, we’re letting him roam around a little bit back there.”

On offense, VanderLeest and fellow senior wideout Clyde Bartee are the Rockets’ home run threats. Kater also lauded the stalk blocking of that duo during the first two games, allowing Ross and junior running back Brody Johnson to find running room downfield.

VanderLeest, who had five touchdown receptions last year en route to first-team all-OK Green honors, had a big game offensively in the opener against Grand Haven, making six catches for 106 yards – highlighted by a 47-yard touchdown reception.

Another storyline going into Friday’s game involves Kater, who played for former Muskegon coach Tony Annese at GRCC and was hired last spring as Muskegon’s offensive coordinator. However, Kater departed shortly thereafter to join former Lowell coach Noel Dean’s staff in Tipton, Ga. Kater then returned to West Michigan on Dec. 31, when he was named Puffer’s new coach.

Kater, 30, is calling the offensive plays for R-P, while his former CMU teammate Alex Smith – who most recently served as head coach at Holton – is the defensive coordinator.

The bigger goal for the Rockets, beyond this week’s showdown at historic Hackley Stadium, is to get into the playoffs and then win a playoff game – something they have not done in 30 years since their memorable, undefeated 1992 season, which ended with a Class A title.

Puffer has qualified for the playoffs five times since that championship season, but each of those postseason appearances were “one and done.”

Kater is encouraged that R-P has enough high school football players to field freshman, junior varsity and varsity teams – something that less than half of the teams in the O-K Green can claim. He also notes that the Rockets have good athletes and numbers in their middle school and youth programs.

He believes this year’s senior leaders like VanderLeest, who hung in there through a 3-6 junior season and a coaching change, will be remembered as the ones who turned the tide.

“I don’t think you’ve seen the best of Tayte yet,” said Kater, the sixth head coach for the Rockets since Hall of Famer Pete Kutches led them to that 1992 title. “We are coaching him extremely hard, and he is getting better. He is a pillar of our team.”

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 Tayte VanderLeest (5) works to break away from a Grand Haven defender during an opening-night win. (Middle) VanderLeest cuts upfield during the 32-20 victory. (Photos by Joe Lane.)

Mendon 8-Player Championship Game Run Paced by Record-Setting Rushing

By Geoff Kimmerly senior editor

May 26, 2023

Mendon’s run to the Division 2 Final last fall included some of the strongest rushing performances over the history of 8-player football.

The Hornets ran for 4,317 yards, second-most all-time, on the second-most attempts (520) and with a record-setting 682 yards Oct. 14 against Marcellus. Mendon also set the record for total offense with 692 total in that game, and made the single-season touchdowns list with 76 including 66 rushing (also second on that list).

Junior Jack McCaw made the single-season scoring list with 212 points, most coming on 29 touchdowns, and Evan Lukeman made the single-game rushing list with 401 yards against Marcellus. Mendon’s defense also earned praise, twice making the fewest-first-downs-allowed list with a low of three.

See below for more recent additions to the 8-player portion of the football record book:

8-Player Football

Athens’ Landon Bennett earned a pair of record book entries after reaching the end zone seven times during his team’s 72-0 win over Burr Oak on Sept. 8. His seven scores are tied for third-most in 8-player history and included three rushing, three on punt returns and one on an interception return. The three punt return touchdowns are a record. Bennett is a junior.

On the night Powers North Central broke its 8-player record for consecutive wins, claiming its 28th straight, senior Luke Gorzinski tied Jets great Jason Whitens for the record for interception touchdowns in a game with two, scoring on returns during the second and fourth quarters. Gorzinski has signed with Michigan Tech, and North Central’s winning streak is 37 games and counting.

A pair of Atlanta offensive playmakers and a top defensive lineman earned a total of seven entries in the record book for achievements last fall. Senior quarterback Tyler Currie threw for 30 touchdowns over eight games, and also made the records for six touchdowns and 419 passing yards against Whittemore-Prescott on Sept. 23; the passing yards are second-most for one 8-player game. Sophomore Landon Galea was added for 263 yards and five of those touchdowns against the Cardinals, and also for 1,418 yards receiving and 23 touchdowns over nine games. Junior teammate Tucker Kendrick made the tackles for loss list with five against Hillman on Oct. 6.

Adrian Lenawee Christian senior Brady McKelvey became the first to make the career extra points list in 8-player football this past fall. He bettered his previous single-season record making 64 of 66 extra-point attempts over 11 games and finishing his two-year varsity career with 123 extra points in 127 tries.

Sam McKissack reached the record book showcasing multiple skills for Crystal Falls Forest Park during the 2021 season – twice for rushing attempts in a game including with a record 59 against Ontonagon that Sept. 10, and then with a record 70-yard punt Oct. 30, 2021, against Lake Linden-Hubbell. Teammate Devon Basirico also made the record book with six fumble recoveries over 11 games that season. As a team, Forest Park was added twice for single-game rushing attempts – including 73 total in that Ontonagon game – and for 424 rushes over 11 games for the season. McKissack and Basirico are seniors this spring.

Nikolaus Lewis tied for eighth-most rushing touchdowns in an 8-player game when he reached the end zone six times for Carsonville-Port Sanilac in its win over Caseville on Oct. 7. He’s a senior this spring.

Bridgman has won 24 straight games over the last three seasons, and an exceptional offense – and exceptional offensive star – have played major roles. The Bees were added for 658 total yards in a win over Lawrence last season, that total ranking third all-time, and also 613 yards in a win over Eau Claire. Those included totals of 575 and 547 rushing yards, respectively, and Bridgman was added for 3,598 rushing yards (sixth on the list), 59 rushing touchdowns (fourth) and 76 total touchdowns (seventh). Senior Reid Haskins capped his four-year, 32-game varsity career with 13 record book entries, including for 254 points last season over nine games (tied for fifth all-time) and a record 620 career points, 41 touchdowns last season (fifth) and a record 95 for his career, 2,344 rushing yards last season (third) and a record 5,206 for his career, and 41 rushing touchdowns last season (third) and a record 94 for his career. Senior teammate Tanner Peters made the records three times including for 50 extra points last season (fourth) and 99 over 26 games and three seasons (second on the career list).

Mio's Austin Fox rewrote the 8-player passing record book this past fall, with his 621 yards in a game against Whittemore-Prescott setting a single-game record as he totaled four of the five-highest passing yardage totals. He also set a record with 3,516 over nine games for the season, another record with 289 passing attempts over those nine games and a third record for nine touchdown passes in that game against the Cardinals. His 41 touchdown passes total rank fourth. Teammates Gage Long and Nathan Hurst also earned several record book entries on the receiving end of those passes. Long’s 297 receiving yards against Whittemore-Prescott were tied for third most, and Hurst’s 266 against Alcona rank eighth. Long set a single-season record with 1,739 receiving yards, with Hurst sixth all-time at 1,321, and Long’s 14 receptions against the Cardinals and 70 for the season also rank second on those respective lists. Hurst set a record for longest 8-player kickoff return with a 99-yarder against St. Helen Charlton Heston. All three are seniors.

Peck was one of the first MHSAA 8-player champions, claiming the title in 2013, and Cody Abrego one of the state’s first 8-player stars. The Pirates were added to the MHSAA record book 52 times, and Abrego 14 times individually. Among the most notable entries for the 2015 graduate were for 462 points scored over his two-season career (ranking sixth all-time), 74 career touchdowns (sixth), 2,202 rushing yards in 2013 (fifth) and 35 rushing touchdowns in 2013 (sixth). Current senior Caleb Lentner was one of the stars statewide this past season, and he was added eight times including for 50 points scored in a game (ranking second), 272 points for a season last fall (fifth), eight touchdowns in a game (tied for second), 42 touchdowns in a season (fifth), an 8-player record of 2,694 rushing yards from last season, and 38 rushing touchdowns also last fall (fourth). Others to make the individual lists were Nathan Robar, Caleb Dudley, Steven VanConant, Kyle Abrego and Nathan Neihaus, Dudley for a record 20 career interceptions over two seasons and VanConant for a record 12 tackles for loss in a 2022 game and 36 tackles for loss for the season last fall. The Pirates also are all over the 8-player team record book, including for a record 97 touchdowns in 2013, a record 5,895 yards of total offense that season, 528 carries, 4,346 rushing yards and 73 rushing touchdowns in 2013 (all ranking second); and 24 interceptions in 2014, which ranks second on that list.

Senior quarterback JR Hildebrand was one of the most dynamic players in 8-player football in the fall in leading Martin to the Division 1 title. He had one of his most exciting nights in a playoff opener against Tekonsha, making the single-game touchdown pass list with six in a 68-6 victory.

PHOTO Mendon’s Jack McCaw (21) eludes a tackle during the 8-Player Division 2 Final in November at Northern Michigan University. (Photo by Cara Kamps.)