By Jacob Arvidson
MUSKEGON TOWNSHIP – The long, painful losing streak is finally over.
“I’m just happy for the kids,” R-P head coach Lance Johnson said. “Some of the hard work we’re doing is starting to pay off.”
The losing streak dated back to the 2014-15 season. The Rockets posted a victory over Fruitport on Jan. 20, 2015, then lost the final 13 games of the campaign.
Then came the painful 2015-16 season, when they went 0-20.
Reeths-Puffer lost its first two games this season, both by very big margins, and it appeared that the next victory could still be a long way off.
But the Rockets rose to the challenge when Greenville came to town for a non-conference game, and hung on to gain the victory when a last-second Yellowjackets shot failed to hit the mark.
“After being on a 35-game losing streak, and we win a game, it’s pretty amazing,” said Reeths-Puffer sophomore Carter Fulton, who led the Rockets with 15 points in the victory, including 11 in the first half. “Now we just have to focus on moving ahead and keep on playing.”
A big challenge for Coach Johnson
The victory was extra sweet for Johnson, the second-year coach who won his first game with the team after losing his first 22.
He never expected things to start out so badly.
Johnson came to Reeths-Puffer in July, 2015, knowing he was inheriting a once-proud program that had not posted a winning record in 14 years. But he was optimistic that he could turn things around, because he came to the job with a winning resume.
He played high school basketball at Spring Lake, where veteran Coach Bill Core has established one of the best boys basketball programs in the area.
After graduating from college in 2013, Johnson returned to Spring Lake to assist Core for a season, and the Lakers finished 21-3 and won a district championship.
The following summer he traveled to Las Vegas to serve as an intern with Impact Basketball, an organization that helps train NBA prospects.
Johnson slowly worked his way back toward West Michigan, serving briefly as an assistant coach at Dordt College in Iowa and helping the team post a 27-3 record. In 2014-15 he was the head boys coach at Munising High School in the Upper Peninsula, and his team finished 21-2.
“After that I was kind of looking to get back to West Michigan,” Johnson said. “I had been around a bit in the last couple years and I saw Reeths-Puffer open up. I was very familiar with Reeths-Puffer, being from the area, so I applied and went for it.
“I had never really lost. The previous three years I had experienced nothing but winning, so going to a situation that was in rebuilding mode, it took me a while to change mindsets a little bit.”
Johnson inherited a program with some big challenges.
Before his first season began, star player Jordan Cooley suffered a football injury which knocked him out for the basketball season. Then another key player from the previous year’s team was removed from the team for disciplinary reasons.
The loss of those two key players, coming on the heels of 13 straight losses, prompted several other veteran players to skip the 2015-16 season.
“It was kind of a domino effect, where a lot of the kids who had been around decided not to play,” Johnson said.
The coach responded in the only way he could. He reached into the school’s youth ranks, pulling up two freshmen – Fulton and DeAirrus Ware – who would end up starting for the varsity.
“I thought I was going to either be on (the) freshman or JV (team),” Fulton said. “I just played it game by game and gave it my best.”
Fulton and Ware partnered with another promising young player, junior Armund Gordon Jr., but their best efforts were not enough to avoid a season-long meltdown. The Rockets finished 0-20 in 2015-16.
“We didn’t really play like a team, and our chemistry wasn’t the best,” Fulton said. “After a while it just settled in and we kept on moving on, playing game after game.”
Finally a victory!
Despite suffering through a winless season, Johnson continued to preach hope and hard work as the 2016-17 season approached.
He brought in Tyrone Williams, a former R-P girls varsity head coach, and Tim Mitchelson, a former R-P boys varsity head coach, to join him as assistant coaches this season.
“Last year, with getting hired in July, I didn’t have a lot of time to put together a full staff,” he said. “That’s made a big difference already this year, having more experienced basketball people around practice, having more guys push kids in practice.”
The dawn of the 2016-17 season seemed to be more promising for the Rockets, who entered the campaign with a 33-game losing streak. But then came another big setback.
Gordon, the best player from last year’s team, suffered a serious shoulder injury in football that sidelined him for the entire basketball season. He would have been the only senior on the team.
“We were winning and competing in a lot of our summer league games,” Johnson said. “Unfortunately, Armund Gordon got hurt in football. Armund was our team MVP last year, he’s a senior this year, and as a junior he averaged nine points and eight rebounds per game.
“When he went down in football I kind of knew we’d have to be a young team again.”
That left the Rockets with the two sophomores, Fulton and Ware, to lead the way. The two had a year of experience under their belts, but the team needed other strong contributors.
One key player turned out to be freshman Emcee Williams.
“He has made a big difference,” Johnson said. “He has quickness and the ability to get in the lane and set up guys for shots. He’s getting guys a lot of open shots, and his play-making has been a big upgrade for us.”
A fourth key player has emerged, as well. Freshman Gary Humphrey III has used his 6-foot-1 frame to become a rebounding force in the paint.
Feeling better about their chances with some talented youngsters, R-P headed to Northview in early December to open the season. But the Wildcats were ready and sent the Rockets home with a 37-point loss.
The team’s home opener, just a few days later, didn’t go much better. The Rockets lost 73-47 to Ludington, leading some to wonder if another winless season might be on the way.
But Johnson could sense that the situation was better, even if the scoreboard didn’t reflect it.
“Just how hard we competed, how well we executed, and just the fact that guys were playing together and sharing the ball, I thought it was a big improvement from last year,” Johnson said.
The losing streak stood at 35 when Greenville visited in Game 3 of the season.
The Rockets led for the entire contest, but Greenville hung around until the end, largely because the Rockets only converted one of their final six free throws.
Reeths-Puffer led by two points in the final seconds, and Greenville had the ball and a chance to tie or win the game.
But fate finally smiled on the Rockets when the Yellowjackets missed a 3-point attempt at the buzzer, and the losing streak was finally a thing of the past.
Emcee Williams scored 10 points in the game for Reeths-Puffer. Jalen Williams and David McHugh contributed seven points apiece while Humphries grabbed 10 rebounds.
Winning was a feeling most of the Rockets had never experienced in their varsity careers.
“For the guys that had been around last year, they were kind of relieved that we got the first one and now we can move on and build,” Johnson said.
The Rockets still have a lot of work to do. That was clear a few days later, when they lost by a big margin to Holland.
But Johnson and his staff are still quite optimistic.
“Starting last year, into the summer, and now into this season, we’re not focusing so much on scouting reports, we’re not focusing so much on what other teams are doing,” said Johnson, whose team will face his alma mater, powerful Spring Lake, on Jan. 5. “We just, every day, try to focus on us and how we can get better.”