By Nate Thompson
HOLTON — During a preseason practice, members of the Holton varsity softball team took time to write their season goals on a dry erase board.
“Everyone was just writing small stuff, and then Kylie grabs the marker and writes in giant letters, ‘WIN STATE,’’” recalled freshman Ryann Robins, speaking of senior standout Kylie Gould. “That moment, I think, made everyone start to believe.
“We want to make it super far. That’s the kind of program that we’re working to become. We want to win a state title.”
Most observers expected Holton (11-2 overall, 7-1 CSAA Silver Division) to be very good this spring, considering the Red Devils returned pitcher and first baseman Gould, a two-time Division 4 All-State honoree who has committed to play softball at Central Michigan University.
Now we know the team may have the talent to accomplish big things, due to the emergence of a pair of super-talented freshmen, Robins and Abbie Fowler.
The numbers tell the story. Robins is hitting a red-hot .514 this season, with five home runs and two doubles. She has a 2-1 record as a pitcher, and has already thrown no-hitters against Newaygo and Lakeview. When she’s not pitching, she splits time at first base with Gould.
Fowler is also a nightmare for opposing pitchers with a .574 batting average. She has five doubles, three triples, and 10 steals. She’s undefeated in the pitching circle, with a 5-0 record.
Although he’s only seen them in action for 13 games, seventh-year head coach Kirk Younts knows how good the freshmen are, and believes their addition to the team could make this year’s Red Devils the best they’ve been in some years.
That’s saying a lot, considering Holton reached the Division 4 state semifinals in both 2015 and 2016, and the state quarterfinals in 2017 and 2019.
“This team is as good, one through nine, as any I’ve ever had,” Younts said. “I think I mentioned that in another article, and one of my former assistants called me and said you’re going to make some of your older players mad, but that’s just me being honest.”
Robins and Fowler both grew up around the sport. They were both managers on the varsity team when they were in middle school, and both played in upwards of 85 games last summer with the travel softball team Top Prospects.
But that’s where the similarity ends, because their playing style and appearance are vastly different.
Robins stands 6-foot and had her fastball clocked as fast as 60 miles per hour during the preseason. She’s also a pure power hitter, as her five home runs suggest.
In her first two varsity games, a doubleheader against Newaygo, she hit three home runs, and pitched a no-hitter with 13 strikeouts in Game 2.
“She puts the ball in play and hits with power,” Younts said. “She’s our No. 4 or 5 hitter, and with her and Kylie Gould, no one wants to pitch to either of them.”
Fowler, on the other hand, is “about 90 pounds,” Younts said, and is a “firecracker” on the field with her blazing speed on the base paths and energy while playing second base.
Fowler, who bats and throws left-handed, specializes in tap-slapping, which involves getting a running start in the batter’s box and bunting down the first base line or in a hole in the defense. But she also has shown some surprising pop at the plate. During the Red Devils’ second game of their doubleheader against Lakeview, Fowler hit for the cycle, with her last hit being an over-the-fence grand slam home run.
“I was so surprised,” Fowler said of her dinger. “I didn’t realize it went over the fence until I got to about third base.”
Younts said he hasn’t seen any cases yet of upperclassmen feeling slighted by having the spotlight stolen by a pair of freshmen. It helps, he said, that they both are tremendously hard workers and aren’t afraid to seek advice from the more experienced players, including Gould.
Robins said she has received some tips from Gould on which pitches to throw in certain situations, and has learned that she simply can’t overpower every hitter with fastballs.
“She’s very positive and never has a bad thing to say, even if you make a mistake,” Robins said about Gould. “She’s not going to yell, but she’ll come over to you and she’ll help you fix it.”
“I watched (Gould) hit her first home run when she was in eighth grade and I was in fifth. And I said right away, ‘I want to do that, too!’”
Although they’re still learning, and he’s cautioned them to remain humble, Younts said he knew Robins and Fowler were more than ready to shine right away at the varsity level..
“They spent a few years as managers for us, so I could see this coming for both girls,” he said. “They both knew what to expect, and they’re not intimidated like some freshmen could be. They both play a lot of travel ball, so they’re used to this. And they’re both going to be pretty special.”