Sammy Holder still grins ruefully when you ask him about the very first pitch he threw for Lewis County.
The Lions’ senior ace has made plenty of positive memories since then, though, and he hopes for a few more before calling it a career in Vanceburg.
The setting is Fleming County’s Panther Field, Flemingsburg, March 22, 2011. Then-Lions coach Josh Hughes summoned a wide-eyed freshman righty in relief with the bases loaded in the fourth inning of Lewis County’s season opener at Fleming County.
The Panthers’ Joe Hunt awaited Holder at the dish. Hunt would go on to be a first-team All-State selection by the Kentucky High School Baseball Coaches Association and win back-to-back 16th Region Player of the Year honors.
So you can guess what happened next: Hunt took Holder deep for a grand slam on the first pitch of his career.
“It’s kinda hard not to just drop your head as soon as you saw that,” Holder chuckled, three years and a KHSBCA honorable mention All-State selection of his own later.
It’s all part of the story of Holder’s rise — and that of Lewis County, too.
Those 2011 Lions finished 8-22, but the next two years they went 52-17, and despite what Holder called an “up-and-down” senior season, Lewis County still sees itself as a factor in the 16th Region this year.
“I’ve been blessed with a good team, good defense behind me all three years, good coaching staff, and it’s just been fun,” Holder said.
Holder ranks among the top pitchers and hitters in the area and is defensively sound at shortstop when he’s not on the mound. He’s hitting .424 and his earned run average is 1.74.
All this would have been a little tough to envision at the end of Holder’s freshman year.
“As a freshman, I went home so frustrated to my mom and dad,” Holder said. “I saw the talent, but it just wasn’t clicking.”
It clicked just fine the next season, when the Lions and new coach Keith Prater mounted a 17-win turnaround to the tune of a 25-6 mark and reached the region tournament semifinals.
“Finally that sophomore year, guys came in, wanted to work, wanted to get better, and it’s built on from that,” Holder said.
According to his coaches, Holder more than did his part in setting that example.
“Coming into this job, we knew it was gonna be a tough job, but Sammy makes it easier,” Lewis County coach Jack Lykins said. “Gives 100 percent every time he’s on the field. Smart kid, plays the game the way it should be, respects the game.”
Added Hughes: “Amazing to see talent and potential come to fruition and turn into success. Such a hard-working kid who deserves the recognition and success he has received.”
Lewis County followed that breakthrough 2012 season with its winningest campaign in school history last spring, finishing 27-11. The year ended with a 1-0 heartbreaker in nine innings in the region tournament quarterfinals to eventual region champion Ashland. Holder matched Tomcats ace Logan Salow scoreless frame for scoreless frame until Ashland’s Cade O’Bryan’s walk-off RBI single with two outs in the ninth.
Holder was named by the KHSBCA to its honorable mention All-State team following his junior season.
With a returning core centered by Holder, the Lions under new coach Lykins figured to be on the short list of 16th Region contenders entering the season.
But Lewis County has struggled to hit its stride, standing 15-13 as it prepares for Monday’s 63rd District Tournament semifinals at home versus Raceland.
The Lions still firmly believe if they can survive the Rams, they could have plenty to say about who represents the region at Whitaker Bank Ballpark.
“Team chemistry isn’t there, and we’ve got one week to prepare that,” Holder said. “It’s gotta come together. I think we can still be that dangerous team, but things gotta start looking up before that happens.”
Prater sees Holder as a potential catalyst for that kind of run.
“He is a great leader who understands the importance of being a leader on and off the field,” Prater, now a Rowan County assistant coach, said. “He is a player that makes the players around him better.”
Holder played basketball at Lewis County, too. This past winter, the Lions punctuated their six seniors’ tenures with a 71-66 upset of Boyd County in the quarterfinals of the 16th Region Tournament.
Holder scored a game-high 19 points in that victory and went on to be an honorable mention All-Area pick by local coaches, even though he wasn’t even a full-time starter until late in his senior year.
“He gave us a lot of options because he could play multiple positions,” Lions basketball coach Joe Hampton said. “He is a great athlete that is very knowledgeable about the game as well as one of our most vocal leaders, and those are qualities that coaches love in their players. He accepted whatever role we gave him and performed exceptionally well coming off the bench earlier this year, but his numbers became increasingly better as the year progressed and he earned a spot in our starting lineup for the final third of our season. He was a big reason we got better as the season progressed.”
Whatever happens in the next couple of weeks, Holder is Kentucky Wesleyan-bound, where he may have the opportunity to contribute from the get-go.
“(Assistant) coach (Adam) Akin came down and watched me play the other day, and he told me he feels like I can go in there and break (into) the weekend rotation off the bat if I hit the weight room,” Holder said. “He told me we’ll probably be the youngest team in the country, because they graduated 16 or something.
“It’s gonna be fun. It’s gonna be another learning experience, and I’m gonna have to step up my game that much higher.”
ZACK KLEMME can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (606) 326-2658.