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ANDY ROBERTS/Beacon

Reeths-Puffer’s Travis Ambrose pulls in a rebound amidst traffic during Tuesday’s game against West Ottawa. Rockets’ coach Nate Aardema (center, background) looks on. Aardema has quickly acclimated to his new position as R-P coach.

MUSKEGON — Apart from the obvious, not much has changed for Reeths-Puffer boys basketball coach Nate Aardema since he started his new job after a lengthy tenure at Whitehall. As he sees it, coaching is coaching.

“Kids are kids,” Aardema said after the Rockets’ win over West Ottawa in December. “They want the same thing. They want somebody to believe in them. They want someone to push them at the right times, and they want someone with an interest in them off the floor and on it. They want to be part of something bigger than themselves. That part hasn’t been different.”

Relationship-building is a strength of Aardema’s, and it was the biggest factor cited by athletic director Cliff Sandee when he tabbed his former Whitehall co-worker to lead the Rockets’ program.

“He loves his athletes,” Sandee said last May when the hire was announced. “He’s passionate about them and their success. Eleven of his 12 years (at Whitehall), his teams have been academic all-state. He’s going to bring the family culture and that atmosphere here.”

Early in his Rockets’ tenure, that passion has carried over to Aardema’s new charges, if you believe sophomore stars Jaxson Whitaker and Travis Ambrose.

“Coach Aardema coming over, he’s become really close with us in the little time we’ve had with him,” Whitaker said after the West Ottawa game. “He’s really good at building a connection with you, and that’s helped a lot.”

Building those connections has come easier because of Aardema’s day job at R-P as a physical education teacher. At Whitehall, he didn’t have the chance to teach in the district, instead teaching in a few different districts during his tenure. Former Viking athletic director Greg Russell was a huge proponent of coaches also being teachers in the district, and the chance for that kind of alignment helped make the decision for Aardema to go to R-P.

“That was my biggest hangup,” Aardema said, noting that he teaches P.E. at both the middle and high school levels. “Being able to see my kids throughout the day, and being at the middle school so I can develop relationships with those guys, I’ll know them for six or eight years, and more. Both these guys (Whitaker and Ambrose) are in my weight-training classes so I see them every day. So much of coaching, so much of life, is about relationships. I feel like we did well with relationships at Whitehall, but getting to see these guys every day, it just makes it even more special.”

And while coaching is coaching, it hasn’t escaped Aardema’s notice that his team is deeper (as are, of course, the opponents his Rockets are facing). With R-P holding an enrollment over 50 percent bigger than Whitehall’s, it stands to reason the Rockets would have more basketball players, and they do.

“Just because of the sheer size of the district, the depth of the talent is a little deeper,” Aardema said. “We’ve coached a lot of good players, but not the one through 14 that can all play. I’ve got guys that haven’t played much, if at all, that can really play, so that’s different.”

He hasn’t forgotten his Whitehall roots, though. He was in the house for the Viking boys’ thrilling win over North Muskegon prior to winter break.

“I’ll always root for them,” Aardema said. “There’s kids I love there and I love Christian (Subdon) to death. I’ll root for them forever.”

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