Putting together your own path can be a very tough thing to do — especially when a person has two family members that have done nothing but light up nets along the way en route to being all-time greats themselves.
However, it only takes one look at Wheelersburg’s Tanner Holden to know that the junior isn’t seriously phased by the challenges that come his way.
And it’s that preparation — both mentally and physically — that has allowed the thrilling athlete to excel in multiple facets.
Division V First-Team All-Southeast District — in both football and basketball. Division V All-Ohio — in both football and basketball. And last, but certainly not least, Mr. Football nomination — the latter being obtained this year after earning All-Southeast District Division V Player of the Year honors and All-Ohio Division V Co-Player of the Year accolades.
Those awards, however, all serve as microcosms for a much bigger purpose that Holden, and all of his teammates, fight for — the Wheelersburg community.
“Being a Wheelersburg Pirate means everything to me,” Holden said. “Just the drive that the coaches and everyone in the community has towards academics and athletics amazes me, time and time again. It’s truly a wonderful thing to be a part of, and the support that comes with being a Pirate is something that you can’t find anywhere else.”
The pride that Holden has in his teammates, his coaches, his teachers, his school, and his community, however, hasn’t gone unnoticed by either one of his head coaches — Rob Woodward and Steven Ater.
“Tanner’s earned his way up through the ranks,” Woodward said. “He is a big target that is easy to go to, but he works at his craft, and he works at being really good at what he does.”
“It’s fun to watch Tanner compete,” Ater said. “He’s such a competitor. He loves to get out there and just go. He couldn’t be happier to be out there competing with his teammates, and just representing the community in the right way.”
Ever since his days coming up through the Wheelersburg ranks, the eyes were always focused on Tanner and his older sister, Sydney — who was a stellar athlete in her own right.
That, however, was expected from Day One considering that Rodney Holden, the Holden’s father, is considered to be one of the greatest athletes to ever come out of the Marshall basketball program. A 6-7 forward who played at Marshall from 1984 to 1988 after making the trip to Huntington from Atlanta, Ga., the elder Holden averaged 9.3 points and 7.6 rebounds per affair for his career, but averaged numbers north of 10.5 points and 8.7 rebounds per bout during the final three years of his college playing days en route to establishing himself as one of the more skilled rebounding presences to ever
And obviously, the apple hasn’t fallen too far from the tree. Sydney averaged 16.7 points and 8.8 rebounds her senior season to obtain First-Team All-Southeast District and First-Team All-Ohio honors, and hasn’t slowed down from there en route to averaging 13.8 points, 6.3 rebounds, and 3.1 assists on 47 percent shooting from the field at Rio Grande.
“He’s got a fantastic family,” Ater said. “There’s great support there. They’ve instilled good values in him, and he’s certainly following a lead that has been set at home.”
As with Sydney, Tanner is making his own name for himself — and in a fashion that may have the attention of more than just the state when it’s all said and done.
But as with any true great, success has to be earned. As a freshman, Holden found himself splitting time on the freshman and junior varsity squads as the raw wideout continued to harness the offensive schemes that are present in the consistent and deep Wheelersburg playbook.
“As a coaching staff, we started to evaluate holes on the varsity level,” Woodward said. “I talked to Tanner and told him that if he continued to work hard, that we wanted to bring him up to the varsity stage and challenge him as well as us. However, I told him that in our system, he had to be good at blocking.”
Ultimately, Holden became “the best blocker” among the wideouts on not only the freshman squad, but the junior varsity unit, as well. With that point checked off of the list, Woodward and Co. decided that his gamebreaking ability needed to be showcased on the varsity level. The freshman responded by delivering on the brightest of lights almost immediately, catching a 53-yard touchdown pass and picking off a pass in Wheelersburg 31-0 victory over Zane Trace that sewed up the Pirates’ first regional title in 17 years.
“Tanner went on to gain a starting role, and continued to get better and earn the opportunities that he got,” Woodward said. “He continued to grow and get better as a sophomore, and really has taken off from there. However, it’s that growth process, and earning what he has gotten, that has allowed Tanner to continue to develop.”
On the basketball court, Holden showed equal growth en route to making an immediate impact for the Pirates on the floor, averaging 12.3 points per contest as a freshman en route to earning Third-Team All-Southeast District honors. During that time, Ater saw qualities that obviously made Holden a truly unique, and special, talent.
“Tanner works so hard just to be a better student-athlete in both football and basketball,” Ater said. “Then, from an overall knowledge standpoint, he sees things so well on the court that it is almost like having a coach out there on the floor. Every year, he’s added a little bit to his game that makes him a better player and allows him to go to the next level.”
But if his first year was a simple flirtation of how good Holden could be, the last two have been the realization of it. After showing flashes in his initial campaigns, Holden bumped up his marks en route to being named as an All-Southeast District Special Mention honoree and an All-Southeast District First-Team nomination, along with an All-Ohio mention, in the 2016-17 season. This season, Holden simply blew away the competition in football by garnering 1,535 yards and a ridiculous 21 touchdown receptions on 87 catches — all school records that blew away Dylan Miller’s previous marks in 2013.
“He was outstanding this year as he became more comfortable with his route running,” Woodward said. “He became more confident too, and part of that comes with maturity. In addition to all of that, he’s done a good job in the weight room getting stronger in the offseason, and when you put all of those things together, it really allows you to become the best student-athlete that you can be.”
And that’s even more impressive considering the amount of pressure that Holden had to deal with during the season. In addition to the numerous double-teams that Holden faced — especially as the season progressed — the wideout received newfound attention from Ohio State on the football gridiron after collecting 208 yards and three touchdowns on 10 catches and returning a 59-yard interception to the house in what is arguably the best game of his career to date.
Still, the newfound sensation — now 6-6 — kept his main focus centered around the opponent that lied ahead each week.
“I didn’t feel any pressure because of the trust that I had in my teammates and coaches,” Holden said of the eyes that were on him. “I knew we had prepared enough to take on the tasks ahead of us.”
And honestly, Holden knew that the extra attention would help the team — which has always been the greater concern.
“If you look at the number of teams that double-covered him and put all of their attention on him, that’s what allowed us to open up the rest of our offense,” Woodward said. “He had people in his face all of the time. They’d try to find ways to get under his skin or get to him. He really had to put up with a lot out on the field. Everybody says, ‘If I can hit this guy one time really hard, he’ll stop trying to come across the middle or do this or that.’ That wasn’t the case. Tanner continued to up his game, and continued to be a student of the game.”
That was, again, on display during Wheelersburg’s thrilling run to the Division V State Championship.
Against Middletown Madison, Holden caught a critical 35-yard pass from Trent Salyers that ultimately set up the game-winning one-yard run from Xander Carmichael that allowed the Pirates to advance to the state title bout. Then, after a thrilling 12-yard connection from Salyers to Makya Matthews allowed Wheelersburg to take Pemberville Eastwood to overtime in the state championship game, Holden fittingly caught Carmichael’s jump pass out of the Wildcat formation on fourth-and-one from the Eastwood 11, and waltzed in for the score for what ended up being the game-winning touchdown reception.
“Catching the game-winning pass in the state final was so unreal,” Holden said. “I still can’t wrap my head around it. It was definitely a moment in my life that I will never forget. Putting up the numbers that I did throughout the season is a great accomplishment, but I couldn’t have done that, either, without the hard work of our offensive line and Trent (Salyers) for always placing the ball where it needed to be.”
While his star is certainly shining around the Wheelersburg community, it is clear that Tanner Holden has become more than a talented student-athlete with great potential. In fact, he is just the latest example of what makes the Wheelersburg community as special as it is today.
“I’m proud of Tanner,” Ater said. “He’s saying, ‘I’ve got four years here, and I’m going to do everything that I can in order to contribute to my school and my community while I’m here.’ That says a lot about him. He’s making the sacrifices in order to be out there with his teammates, and that means a lot as a coach. It shows how much he loves his teammates and his community.”
However, Holden will be the first to tell you that it is the people closest to him — his family, his friends and teammates, and his coaches — who have given him the strength to hold down the fort.
“It’s been tremendous playing with the teammates that I’ve been able to play with over the past three years,” Holden said. “The upperclassmen have really pushed me to do my best in every drill or set in the weight room, and have pushed me to do my best on every play. It’s definitely a blessing to have the success that I have been able to have in both football and basketball, but there is no way that I would be able to do it without my family, who drives me to be the best in everything that I do, and my coaches and teammates, who get me ready to perform on a daily basis.”
Reach Kevin Colley at (740) 353-3101 ext. 1930 OR on Twitter @KColleyPDT