By Nate Thompson

HOLTON – There’s a tattoo on Aidan Poling’s arm that will always hold a special meaning, a certain kind of life blood for him. 

It may be even more significant to him now, considering the success that Poling and his teammates are experiencing with the Holton varsity basketball squad this winter.

Poling, a 6-foot senior guard for the Red Devils, experienced an unthinkable loss when he was just 11 when his father, Michael Poling, passed away from a heart attack. 

“I think he’d be pretty proud with the success we’re having so far,” Aidan said about his dad. “I have a tattoo on my arm with a soccer ball and basketball along with his date of birth and death, and his name as a memorial. He coached me in every sport I played in when I was a kid.” 

“He was more into baseball and soccer, but he always pushed me to be a leader,” he added. “To try to be a floor general in all the sports that I play.”

Holton guard Aidan Poling. Photo/Beth Olson

Holton, coming off a strong 13-win season a year ago, has taken another step forward this season by roaring out of the gates with a 7-1 record. Led by a stifling defense that often features a full-court zone trap, the Red Devils have already produced key wins over Central State Activities Association rivals Morley Stanwood and Kent City, as well as solid non-conference victories over Ravenna and Newaygo.

It’s no surprise the coaches at Holton projected a big season for Poling during the preseason. First-year head coach Keith Swanson, a longtime assistant at Fremont High School, said he could sense it after a few practices. 

“He’s so key to our success,” Swanson said. “He’s our undisputed leader. He leads everybody. Aidan has an extremely high basketball IQ, and honestly, I don’t think I’ve ever been around a player his age that takes such a professional approach to the game. Just from the aspect of watching film for hours at a time, and he’ll come in and get a workout in before practice. He’s a driven individual.”

Aidan Poling drives into the lane for Holton. Photo/Beth Olson

Watching Holton play basketball was a big part of Poling’s life as he was growing up, and he received a lot of insight into the varsity game from his older brother Aaron, a former Red Devil.

“I was the manager on the team when he played,” Poling said. “I’ve got a lot of (tips) from him that have helped improve my game.”

Although he excels on lightning-quick drives to the rim and has a solid outside shot, Poling said he learned how to play with a certain grittiness from his older brother, which is a necessity with this year’s Holton squad.

The Red Devils have to be gritty and mentally tough, particularly on defense, because there aren’t a lot of reserves on the bench, and the players are not tall.

“We only have eight players and the tallest kid is 6-1,” Swanson said. “We’ve been able to turn over teams quite a bit and we’ve used the press to dictate what they get. Against a team like Morley, which has good size, we didn’t want them to (set up their offense) and get a good look at our size, because they’d be able to expose us.”

Poling gets ready to take a free-throw for Holton. Photo/Leo Valdez

Instead, the Red Devils limited the Mohawks to just 37 points in a season-opening 12-point victory. Poling led the way with 14 points.

“I think that win really got the kids believing,” Swanson said. “We hadn’t beaten Morley in a few years.”

“Our defense has been really surprising,” Poling added. “We’re always deflecting passes and getting in other teams’ heads. I’m sure it’s annoying to play against.”

Poling has continued to lead the charge on both ends of the court, averaging 19 points, three rebounds, three assists and three steals per game. 

Even off the court, Poling doesn’t venture far away from his team, particularly his friend Wyatt Monette, the Red Devils’ other standout.

Due to personal issues at home, Poling was given the opportunity to live with Monette’s family in August, and he gratefully accepted. He said it’s helped him narrow his focus to school and sports – he is also a pitcher and plays second base in baseball. 

But with the Red Devils being hot and heavy into the Covid-19 condensed basketball schedule, Poling has some big goals that he’d like to accomplish before thinking about spring sports.

“The ultimate goal is to go far in the playoffs and go 10-0 in conference,” he said. “For me, I really love boosting my team. I want to get them hyped. I feel like if I start playing well, the team feeds off that.” 

That’s just the way his dad would have liked it.