MUSKEGON – Nate Aardema visited Reeths-Puffer High School last Thursday to watch his daughter play varsity softball for Whitehall. Turns out, it was also a business trip.

He’ll be seeing a lot more of Reeths-Puffer going forward. Aardema was announced this afternoon as the Rockets’ new boys varsity basketball coach. He fills the coaching vacancy created by Lance Johnson’s recent resignation.

Aardema, 41, has served as Whitehall’s boys varsity basketball coach the past 12 years. During that time, he guided the Vikings to three West Michigan Conference titles, eight winning seasons and a 154-94 overall record. They were 13-4 in the shortened 2020-21 season.

As excited as Aardema is to take on a new challenge, it’s equally tough for the 1998 Whitehall alumnus to leave the coaching job at his alma mater.

Muskegon defeats Reeths-Puffer 67-58

Reeths-Puffer basketball coach Lance Johnson directs his players from the sidelines during a game against Muskegon at Reeths-Puffer High School on Thursday, March 25, 2021. (Hope Davison | MLive.com)Hope Davison

“It’s really emotional,” Aardema said as he paused to collect himself. “There wasn’t a good way to do this because I wanted to speak to my kids at Whitehall before it came out. It didn’t work with having to keep things private and respect the process at Reeths-Puffer.

“This opportunity just came along and it was too good to not jump at, although it’s extremely hard to leave my guys. I’m going to have some new guys that I’m extremely excited to work with at Puffer.”

Aardema, who teaches fourth grade in the Montague Area Public Schools district, is in line to be hired into the physical education department at Reeths-Puffer pending school-board approval.

At Whitehall, Aardema guided the Vikings to double-digit wins nine seasons, three of them with 15-plus victories. His worst record in a dozen years at Whitehall was 9-11, which happened twice. Aardema was the MLive Muskegon Chronicle Coach of the Year in 2015-16, when he led the Vikings to a 17-5 record. The next year, they went 19-3.

Under his watch, Whitehall has earned 11 academic all-state awards and twice has been recognized by the Basketball Coaches Association of Michigan for great sportsmanship. Six of Aardema’s players have gone on to compete at the collegiate level.

Prior to becoming Whitehall’s head basketball coach, Aardema served as an assistant for Tony Annese and Troy Love. He also spent seven seasons as an assistant football coach at Whitehall.

Ravenna at Whitehall

Whitehall basketball coach Nate Aardema watches from the sidelines during a game against Ravenna at Whitehall High School on Dec. 19, 2019.Kayla Renie | MLive.com

“He’s a relationship guy. That what he hangs his hat on. You can’t really capture a student until you capture their heart. It’s the same in athletics,” said Reeths-Puffer assistant principal Cliff Sandee, who is transitioning to athletic director duties and led the search for the Rockets’ new basketball coach.

Sandee and Aardema are well-familiar with each other from Sandee’s dozen years as a wrestling and football coach at Whitehall.

“He rose to the top as far as his ability to foster those positive relationships out of our students and get the most out of them and for them, too,” Sandee said. “On his end, he’ll do the most for them.”

Johnson, 30, resigned from his position as Reeths-Puffer’s head boys basketball coach after six seasons at the helm. He was 51-75 during that time, 48-37 in the last four years. The Rockets went 9-10 in 2020-21.

The 2009 Spring Lake alumnus said it was time to take a break, as he had been a head coach since the age of 23. His first season as a varsity coach was spent in Munising, which went 16-3.

“I got hired as a head JV coach as a sophomore in college (at Grand Valley State). It’s kind of been all I’ve known my whole adult life. I just wanted to kind of take a step back and do some other things,” said Johnson, whose Rockets squads his first two years were a combined 3-38 before the program turned around.

“I feel really good about what we accomplished. The program’s in a good spot. Our freshman team had a winning record, our JV team was 12-5. We had two really good freshmen on the varsity and return a lot of good players, so the next coach is in a great spot to come in and be successful. I feel like I did my partn turning it around and now it’s time for someone else to kind of come in and take it to the next level.”

Reeths-Puffer also hired a new competitive cheer coach on Friday. Lis Smith of Muskegon is the successor for Andy Brown. Sandee said she’s been a competitive cheer coach for 25 years and she’s worked with Reeths-Puffer athletes in the past.

As for the head wrestling coach opening at Reeths-Puffer – vacated by highly successful Matt Brink’s resignation or, in his words, “retirement” – Sandee said the school is beginning to filter through applications. He said the hope is to have that position filled by next week.

Aardema said he had a second interview for R-P’s basketball coaching position last Thursday – making his visit to the school for personal and business reasons. He was offered the job this morning.

With the news being so fresh, Whitehall AD Greg Russell told MLive this afternoon that he hadn’t yet gotten the opportunity to speak with Aardema, for whom the Vikings will have to find a replacement.

As stated, it’s a bittersweet day for Aardema: Thrilled with the opportunity at Reeths-Puffer, saddened to have to say good-bye to Whitehall.

“It’s a huge school with great resources. They’ve got great support from top down and they’ve got great strength and speed programs they’ve implemented and are working towards. They’ve got a lot of great kids that are in that district,” Aardema said about R-P.

“My first task is to meet the kids, meet the families and start developing that relationship. Really, that’s what coaching is based on – just getting to know the kids.”

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