By Andrew Johnson

HOLTON – Senior Austin Hawkins has seen the best of times and the worst of times for Holton football.

As a sophomore in 2018, he was significant contributor when the Red Devils shocked everyone and made an unexpected run to the Division 3 state semifinals, an accomplishment that caused a lot of excitement in the small community of Holton.

As a junior last season, he and his teammates suffered through a 1-8 season (with the one victory being a forfeit), after a rash of injuries to key players decimated the roster.

Holton wide receiver Austin Hawkins.

This year the Red Devils are off to a promising 2-1 start heading into Friday night’s showdown against neighborhood and conference rival Hesperia.

Hawkins, one of the few remaining players from that special 2018 squad, is hoping things go well the rest of the way, and he might be able to wrap up his career with a few more exciting playoff victories.

“It would mean a lot to me if we had a successful year,” said the senior wide receiver, who has 16 catches for 260 yards and two touchdowns so far this season. “You have to look at it as being important for the underclassmen, because it will impact their future. The group that we have this year means a lot to me. Everyone is so loose, and the bond is so tight. It’s an amazing feeling to be one of the leaders on this team.”

Leadership is something that Hawkins never had the chance to avoid, according to Holton Coach Mike Jados. He has the talent and experience, and he knows what success feels like, so he is naturally a team captain this season.

“We never gave him a choice,” the coach said about Hawkins, a third-year starter. “We kind of just said, ‘This is your team.’ He’s the only one who was truly a part of the 2018 team all season. He’s the only one who knows what this is all about. I don’t know if he truly coveted or looked for (a leadership role), but he’s the kind of guy who makes us go right now.”

Hawkins rushes the ball for Holton during the Red Devils’ game against Hesperia last season. Photo/Leo Valedez

Hawkins first gained big notoriety in Holton during the great 2018 season, when he rushed for a 19-yard touchdown to give the Red Devils their final margin of victory in a stunning 14-6 upset of Mendon in a regional championship game. That victory put them in the state semifinals.

He has also played a key role in every game so far this season, repeatedly hooking up with quarterback Austin Fowler to make the passing game click.

Hawkins had eight catches for 117 yards in Holton’s 15-7 opening game victory over White Cloud. He had 119 receiving yards, and caught the game-winning 20-yard touchdown pass, in a 7-6 win over Lakeview.

He had his best statistical night last Friday in a 30-12 loss to Kent City, He had three catches for 63 yards, including a 55-yard touchdown reception, and ran for 73 yards on 13 carries.

Clearly defense has been a big strength for Holton, particularly in the first two games of the season. Hawkins, a free safety, has played a big role on that side of the ball, as well, with 20 tackles, one interception and one fumble recovery so far this season.

“The defense right now is the best part of our team,” Coach Jados said. “We have a lot of unselfish guys who are doing their jobs and taking up space. Kent City was something for us to learn from last week, but we’ve played well all three weeks.”

The Red Devils have their work cut out for them over the last three weeks of the regular season. After Friday’s showdown at Hesperia, which could go either way, they will host a good Morley Stanwood team next week in their last SCAA Silver Division conference game, then face currently undefeated Muskegon Catholic.

Holton Coach Mike Jados talks with his team during a timeout. Photo/Jason Goorman

“Those are teams that are really going to come after us,” Coach Jados said. “They’re all aggressive and we’ll have to come out and match that.”

When the playoffs arrive in Week 7, Hawkins is hoping his team will be peaking, and the Holton fans will support them the way they did in 2018, even if many won’t be able to attend games due to COVID crowd restrictions.

“The community supported us so well,” Hawkins said about the 2018 playoff run. “It was so amazing to see how packed the stands were. It was the most amazing feeling ever. It’s pretty sad not having the whole community at home in the stands right now, but I know each and every one of them are rooting for us and pushing us forward.”

No matter what happens the rest of the season, Hawkins said he will be relishing every moment he has left in his high school football career.

“I’ve been playing since first or second grade,” he said. “It means everything to me. It’s the one thing that I can do and feel happy about. I feel good when I play. It gives me something to distract from all the negative things.”