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By Steve Gunn
HOLTON – The Holton softball team was great last season, advancing all the way to the state semifinals.
Forward to this spring, when Holton started out 14-12, the so-so season that most expected.
But Red Devils Coach Kirk Younts had faith that great things were ahead, and he was right.
Holton pulled together after its mediocre start, stringing together 15 straight victories and capturing a share of the Central States Activities Association Silver Division title, a district championship and a regional title along the way.
The 15th straight win came on Tuesday when the Red Devils beat Coleman 6-3 in the Division 4 state quarterfinals in Mount Pleasant.
Now they are back to where they left off last year – in the state semifinals. They will play Indian River Inland Lakes on Friday at 5:30 p.m. at Michigan State University, with the winner advancing to Saturday’s state championship game.
Holton defeated Baldwin and Big Rapids Crossroads Academy to win districts and Fife Lake and Vestaburg to win regionals.
“It’s funny, but last year, after the semifinal game (which Holton lost to Unionville Sebewaing Area), I was interviewed by someone, and I said we had a good group of kids coming back and a good group coming up,” said Younts, whose team is 29-12. “I said I wanted to get the kids used to this, and come back this year, and here we are.”
Younts said the turnaround for the team came at a weekend tournament in Petoskey earlier this season – even though the Red Devils lost all three games.
They outhit Lake Orion, a highly-ranked Division 1 team, in a tough loss. They were tied with Inland Lakes, their opponent in Friday’s semifinal, before losing in a rough seventh inning.
“We played three very good teams and lost them all, but I knew the competition there was going to prepare us for this,” Younts said.
“We went to the tournament early, stayed overnight, did some team bonding stuff and had some fun. Then we had a good pitching weekend, the kids hit the ball well, and we’ve been going good since then.”
This year’s Red Devils squad is very different than last year’s. The 2015 team was led by star senior pitcher Rachel Younts, a fireballer who struck out a lot of batters.
This year Holton has relied on two pitchers – Mikayla Baker, who is 13-5 with a 2.93 earned run average, and freshman Haylee Brant, who is 12-6 with a 2.36 ERA.
Brant, who is only 14, pitched a complete-game victory in the state quarterfinals.
Neither pitcher throws as hard as Rachel Younts, but they get the job done well, particularly with the help of a very good defense behind them.
“Sometimes the defense falls asleep when you have a (strikeout) pitcher,” said Younts, who is the father of Rachel Younts and current Red Devil Shelbey Younts. “It’s easy for them to lose their focus. We’ve had to coach them more this year, but our defense has stood tall behind our pitching.”
Hitting has also been a strength for the Red Devils, who have been led at the plate by Emily Larabee (.520 batting average, 44 stolen bases), Morgan Murat (.400 average, 44 RBIs), Shelbey Younts (.373 average), Hutchison (.344 average) and Micheylah Ross (.367 average).
“We have a better hitting team, top to bottom, than last year,” Younts said.