By Lucas Rains

HOLTON – Last spring’s painfully early exit from the state tournament has left the Holton softball team extra hungry for success.

The Red Devils – ranked No. 1 in the state in Division 4 last season – ran into No. 5 North Muskegon in the district semifinals in 2014. They led in the late innings but let the game slip away.

Holton's Rachel Younts, left, and Ashley Friend

Holton’s Rachel Younts, left, and Ashley Friend

But Holton players and coaches don’t like to talk about that. With several top returnees back from last year’s squad, they’re focused on the new task at hand.

One opportunity for redemption will come right away, because Holton opens the season Thursday against North Muskegon.

But the team’s goals go far beyond winning the season opener. First year Coach Kirk Younts believes his senior-laden squad can rebound and make a much deeper run in the state tournament.

“Our first goal is always to win our conference, which Holton has never done,” Younts said. “After that, our girls want to win a state championship. They want to get back to where they were two years ago when they made the state semifinals.”

Of course success in softball relies heavily on pitching, and successful pitchers need good catchers.

Holton will rely on two senior standouts in that crucial department – pitcher Rachel Younts and catcher Ashley Friend .

Rachel Younts, the daughter of Coach Younts, has high expectations for herself and the Red Devils as a team.

“I just try to be a leader out there and have a good attitude for my teammates,” she said. “It’s our senior year and (the loss in districts) put a fire under us. We want to be state champs. Going undefeated is another one of our goals.”

Rachel Younts finished last year with a 23-8 record and a miniscule 0.88 ERA. She struck out 197 batters and walked just 31. Offensively she was no slouch, hitting a cool .349.

Her dad expects a lot from her this season.

“I expect Rachel to lead us on the mound,” Coach Younts said. “She’s pitched in the big games for us and she’s worked extremely hard in the offseason.”

Rachel Younts and Friend have been playing softball together since they were 10, and their familiarity with each other should make the Red Devils even harder to score against.

“It’s tremendous to have her catching me,” Rachel Younts said. “I don’t always feel comfortable with a catcher, so I always want Ashley back there. It just helps a lot to have someone that knows you so well.”

“It helps a lot knowing your pitcher and what (Younts) wants to throw in certain situations,” Friend said. “I think we are both way more comfortable together.”

Coach Younts has high praise for Friend, who hit .419 last year, in addition to playing stellar defense behind the plate. Friend threw out six of nine attempted base stealers and picked off another nine runners.

“(Friend) is the best catcher I’ve ever seen,” Coach Younts said. “I think she could start for almost any boys’ baseball team, that’s how good I think she is.”

Friend said team unity will be important if Holton wants to achieve its goals this season.

“We need to be a family and to love each other,” Friend said. “We can’t afford to separate into little groups, but support each other and stick together.”

In addition to Younts and Friend, two-time All-State infielder Jacki Stone will be one of the Red Devils’ key offensive pieces. Stone hit .453 last season as a junior.

Katie Wildfong will play shortstop and do some pitching for Holton as well. Emily Larabee, whom Coach Younts deemed “the fastest kid in our school,” will play a big part on this year’s team. Shelby Younts will play first base and be expected to a swing a big bat once again.