By Tom Kendra
After four days of limited contact, the Rockets were brimming with energy, knowing this practice would feature an intrasquad scrimmage with full pads and full contact – a chance to separate the men from the boys and give everyone a taste of the Friday night lights (which is coming soon).
But under the direction of new coach Cody Kater, this evening of ramped-up intensity began in the most curious location:
Kater looked more like a college professor than Mike Ditka, standing in front of his team and reading several chapters of the 2015 inspirational book, “Chop Wood Carry Water: How to Fall in Love with the Process of Becoming Great” by Joshua Medcalf.
The book details one boy’s journey to become a samurai warrior, as he learns the greatest adversary to fulfilling his dream is within himself.
Kater preaches to his players repeatedly that if they ever want to achieve their goals of beating rivals Muskegon and Mona Shores and making playoff runs of their own, they first need to defeat and eliminate the bad habits and old patterns that have plagued Reeths-Puffer football from within for years.
“The kids have some really bad habits that we are trying to break,” explained Kater, an all-state quarterback at Montague, who served as offensive coordinator when the Wildcats won the Division 6 state championship in the 2020 season. “A lot of it is mental – like making excuses, complaining and not giving full effort.”
Bottom line: If Puffer is going to make its long-awaited turnaround and earn a place at the table with state powers Muskegon and Mona Shores, it’s going to start with a change of mentality.
“He’s a younger guy that brings a lot of energy,” said senior defensive back Garrett Chesney. “He doesn’t play favorites. He’ll call out anyone, no matter who you are and he’ll be brutally honest about what you need to work on.”
A hungry – and skeptical – community
Kater understands the skepticism.
It’s been 30 years since R-P won a playoff football game, in that memorable 1992 season that culminated with “The Play,” when Stacy Starr snatched a 37-yard TD pass from Geoff Zietlow on a flea-flicker with 23 seconds remaining in a 21-18 win over Walled Lake Western at the Pontiac Silverdome for the Class A state championship.
Since that high-water mark, Puffer has qualified for the playoffs just five times – and each of those playoff appearances were “one-and-dones.”
So forgive Rocket fans if they are curbing their enthusiasm somewhat after the hiring of the 30-year-old Kater on Dec. 31 of last year.
Yes, he COULD be the type of young coach that inspires and leads the Rockets to the level of Shores and Muskegon, a team which has beaten the Rockets by an average score of 55-7 over the past 7 years.
Kater became familiar with the “Big Red way” of doing things in 2011 at Grand Rapids Community College, where he was the starting quarterback and former Muskegon High coach Tony Annese was the head coach. He learned from Annese how to truly connect with young men on many car rides from GR back to the White Lake area, where both of them lived.
“We would make that drive and not say 20 words to each other, because he was talking on the phone to former players the entire time,” Kater recalled. “Those are the kinds of relationships that I want to build.”
On the other hand, Kater COULD turn out to be another well-meaning prophet who couldn’t manage to meld the somewhat disjointed conglomeration of communities which make up the Reeths-Puffer district into a coherent, consistent football program.
Pete Kutches, who previously won two state championships at Muskegon Catholic, was the head coach for Puffer’s last playoff win – the 1992 Class A state championship game. Five different coaches have coached the Rockets since Kutches – Denny Barnes, Tim Odette, Kyle Jewett, Jeff Uganski and Matt Bird – all of whom had some success, but never in the playoffs.
“The thing I like about Coach Kater is that he doesn’t make it about himself,” said senior nose guard and center Hunter Allison. “He wants it for us. He wants us to know how it feels to win games and to feel good about ourselves.”
Prove it on the field
Less than an hour after the library session, Kater has traded in the motivational book for a whistle, and is overseeing an intense scrimmage between his 32 varsity players.
“Same old Puffer, yup, same old Puffer,” Kater chides his defensive starters as they complain about fatigue. “We hang in there for a while and then we lose it. Gotta fight through it.”
Kater brings in a reputation as an offensive guru, and will be calling the offensive plays.
The last time he was in that role was the undefeated 2020 season at Montague, when the Wildcats used a dizzying number of formations and weapons to befuddle all 12 opponents. Kater’s offense averaged 48 points per game and put on a show in the state championship game at Ford Field against Clinton, with receivers popping open all over the field in a 40-14 victory.
Kater is currently busy trying to put his current players in the right positions. The Rockets have a pair of dangerous senior receivers in Tayte Vanderleest and Clyde Bartee, along with senior quarterback Brady Ross and junior running back Brody Johnson.
The biggest challenge appears to be up front. On this day, the scout team, under the direction of veteran Puffer coaches Jeff Uganski and Gary Niklasch, is having its way against the first-team defensive front.
The man tasked with bringing that defense up to par is Alex Smith, 31, who played with Kater for three years at Central Michigan University and most recently was the head coach at Holton. He is assisted by Jari Brown, a former defensive end and team captain at Eastern Michigan University.
Stopping people was a problem last fall, as the Rockets gave up an average of 43 points in the last five games of the year.
“I have two older brothers that beat me up all the time, so I know how it feels to be the underdog,” said Kater, who is working as the Student Success Coordinator at Reeths-Puffer, with a mission of keeping troubled students in school and getting them back on track.
“That underdog mentality is what we’re going in with. We have some real tough kids out here with an edge, but the key is that toughness needs to come out on the football field.”
Honeymoon nearly over
Kater and his wife, Hannah, are remodeling a house in the Glenside neighborhood in Muskegon, but the couple is still living in his parents’ basement in Montague.
That setting has allowed Kater to dive into the R-P rebuild project 100 percent and with “earmuffs and blinders” on – blocking out all distractions.
The fruits of that labor will be on display for all to see, starting on August 25, when Puffer hosts Grand Haven in its traditional opener. While his tenure at Puffer has been incredibly positive so far, he knows he will be judged by the way his team performs on game nights.
“This community is hungry to have what those communities (Muskegon and Mona Shores) have,” Kater said. “The only way we are going to do that and to close the gap, and there obviously is a gap, is to put in the work and to do the ordinary things better than anyone else in the county.”
Taking the long view, Kater said numbers are good enough to field three high school teams (freshmen, junior varsity and varsity) and he’s extremely excited about the players in R-P’s middle school program.
Short term, the Rockets open the season with two winnable games – at home against Grand Haven on Aug. 25 and at St. John’s (located 24 miles north of Lansing) on Sept. 1 – with the importance of getting at least one win in those two games magnified by a gauntlet of games against O-K Green opponents, where Puffer will likely be favored in only one game, the regular-season finale at Holland.
The first league game will be the toughest challenge of all – a trip to historic Hackley Stadium to face the Muskegon Big Reds, the state’s all-time winningest prep football program, which this fall happens to feature perhaps the state’s best running back duo in Jakob Price and Destin Piggee.
The deeper storyline involves Kater, who was hired by Muskegon as offensive coordinator last April, but abruptly left the Big Reds one month later to join former Lowell coach Noel Dean’s staff in Tipton, Ga. He coached at that 7A high school last fall, before taking the R-P job in December.
Kater and Smith are looking at the challenge in a positive light, excited to match wits against many veteran and highly-successful coaches in the O-K Green, notably Muskegon’s Shane Fairfield, Mona Shores’ Matt Koziak, Zeeland West’s John Shillito and Grand Rapids Union’s Don Fellows.
“It’s a helluva challenge, but we are going to run to the roar,” said Kater, referencing another one of his favorite inspirational books, “Chase the Lion,” by Mark Batterson.
“The younger lions are the ones who do the hunting. We feel like we’re the young cubs lying in the grass and there’s some older lions roaming around this county and this conference. We have to quit playing it safe. We have to be bold and run toward the roar.”