By Steve Gunn and Andrew Johnson

EAST LANSING -On Thursday, Holton Coach Kirk Younts was talking about the possibility of his talented team becoming the first Muskegon County squad to reach the state softball finals, and perhaps the first to actually win a title.

The Red Devils certainly seemed headed in that direction on Friday, leading 7-1 after four innings of the Division 4 state semifinals, and were within one out of clinching a win in the bottom of the seventh.

But Rudyard, an Upper Peninsula squad largely unfamiliar to the Red Devils, kept battling every step of the way. The Bulldogs  managed to claw back and tie the score with three runs in the bottom of the seventh inning, then completed the remarkable rally when pitcher Morgan Bickel, who had given up 13 Holton hits and allowed the Red Devils to build a big lead, launched a walk-off homer to right field in the bottom of the eighth.

Gianna Reed connects at the plate for Holton. Photo/Leo Valdez

Rudyard escaped with a 9-8 victory at Michigan State University, and the stunned Red Devils, ranked No. 1 in the state, saw their season end in the most painful fashion imaginable.

Holton finished the season with a 36-7 record, along with Division 4 district and regional championships.

“It was a tight game,” said a stunned Coach Younts, whose team also lost in the D4 semifinals in 2015 and 2017. “A real tight game. They battled and so did we. Give them credit. They battled their way back. We thought they’d get mercied after it was 7-1, but they just beat us today. I like how we played. Our kids hit the ball well.”

“It hurts. It’s hard to talk about in the moment like this. I’ll probably have more answers tomorrow. This hurts, and it’s not how you want it to end, but they beat us.”

The game seemingly belonged to Holton, as least through most of it.

The Red Devils took a 1-0 lead in the top of the first when pitcher Kylie Gould hit an RBI single to center field, scoring Abbie Fowler, who had led off the game with a bunt single.

Holton added four more runs in the second inning, with two outs. Kennedy Greene led off the inning with a single, then scored on a wild pitch and an interference call. Fowler added another bunt single, Maddison Bossett advanced Fowler to third with a single to right, then Gianna Reed knocked in a run with a line drive hit that bounced off the Rudyard third baseman’s glove.

Kylie Gould delivers the pitch for Holton. Photo/Leo Valdez

Ryann Robins followed with a two-run single, and Holton had a very promising 5-0 lead.

Rudyard scored once in the bottom of the third, then Holton added a run in the fourth on a triple by Gianna Reed and an RBI groundout by Robins to take a 7-1 lead.

Rudyard began its impressive rally in the bottom of the fifth when Paige Postma launched a three-run homer to make the score 7-4. Holton added a run in the sixth when Bossett tripled with one out, then scored on a pass ball later in the inning to give the Devils an 8-4 edge.

Rudyard scored once in the bottom of the sixth to pull within three, then scored three more in the seventh and final regulation inning to knot things up at 8-8 and send the game to extra innings.

Holton could have sewed up the win in the seventh. The Red Devils led 8-5 and Rudyard had two outs with runners on third and first, but Bickel made it 8-6 with an bloop RBI single to left, Meagan Postma made it 8-7 with an RBI single to right that just got over the second baseman’s glove, and Karlee Mayer tied the game with a liner to right that just bounced off the glove of diving Holton outfielder Riley Legard.

Gianna Reed signals two outs for Holton. Photo/Leo Valdez

Rudyard almost got the victory in the same inning when Tori Tromblay hit a fly to center that just about dropped in and scored the winning run, but Bossett dove and snagged the ball to end the rally and force extra innings.

“The feeling wasn’t great,” Gould said, when asked about Rudyard stealing the momentum. “We had to keep going. I think we played together really well after they took the momentum. Things just didn’t go our way, and I guess that’s part of the game.”

“I think it changed a little bit,” Gould added, when asked how she was holding up on the mound as Rudyard started climbing back. “But I was still pretty confident. They poked the bat at some of my best pitches and they found holes. It just didn’t go our way.”

Holton had the bases loaded with one out in the top of the eighth, but the threat ended with a force out at the plate on a ground ball, followed by a strikeout.

Neither team could score in the bottom of the eighth or the top of the ninth, then Bickel settled the issue with her homer to right with one out in the bottom of the ninth.

Holton Ryann Robbins watches a single go up the middle. Photo/Leo Valdez

The sting of that moment was hard to deal with for Holton, which had played so well all season, and believed they had a great shot of capturing the state title.

“I love this team,” Coach Younts said. “They’re good kids. This was their dream to get here, and it just didn’t work out the way we wished.”

Gould said the thing she will miss most in the daily contact with her teammates.

“Definitely the bond we had,” she said. “I can’t think of anyone of these girls I don’t want to talk with every single day. We knew we were good. It was fun to play with them.”

Holton finished with 13 hits. Fowler and Bosset each had three hits and scored two runs. Reed finished with two hits, scored two runs and knocked in one while Robins led the Red Devils with three RBIs.

Gould pitched 8 1/3 innings, allowing eight earned runs on 11 hits while striking out seven batters. Gould also walked five hitters on the day.

Bickel picked up the win on the mound, pithing all nine innings, allowing seven earned runs on 13 hits while striking out seven and walking four.