Holtman, Johnson carry the torch to keep Ryle’s flame burning

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When Maddie Scherr was named a McDonald’s All-American in 2020, it was yet another first in a series of unprecedented achievements for Ryle girls’ basketball. It had an impact on the younger players in the program, like current seniors Abby Holtman and Austin Johnson.

“I do (remember that) because when (Scherr) got it, her mom came in with McDonald’s,” said Holtman, who was a freshman at the time. “We all were surprised. Yes, that’s very memorable because we all got McDonald’s.”

A few weeks ago, Holtman and Johnson were among five female players from Kentucky nominated for the McDonald’s All-American game. Neither made the final cut of 24 selected, but just being recognized meant plenty to the pair.

“I was super excited. I was so proud, the both of us. We both work really hard,” Johnson said. “I think it’s a testament to how hard we push ourselves and our teammates, as well. We wouldn’t be where we are without our teammates, and all the work we put in during the offseason and during the season together.”

Holtman had been looking forward to a potential McDonald’s All-American nomination going back to that season it happened for Scherr.

“I write down my goals. My dad had me write some down, and that was on my paper my freshman year. It’s crazy that I got nominated,” Holtman said. “That freshman girl would be really proud.”

Scherr, along with former Raiders’ teammates Lauren Schwartz and Brie Crittendon, helped set the standard at Ryle. It was their 2018 team that won the first Ninth Region title in school history. The next year they led Ryle to its first ever state championship. Schwartz graduated, signed with Rice and is now playing for Washington. Crittendon and Scherr kept it going as Ryle won its third consecutive region crown in 2020. The Raiders won their opening round game of that Sweet 16 before the tournament was canceled due to the COVID pandemic. Scherr signed with Oregon but is now at Kentucky. Crittendon is in her sophomore season at Eastern Kentucky University.

The path to three straight Ninth Region titles, a state championship trophy, a McDonald’s All-American and multiple Division I signees started when Scherr was an eighth grader and Schwartz a freshman. It was Katie Haitz first season as Ryle’s head coach.

“I started with seven seniors, one of those being Lauren’s older sister (Mallory), and a group that had been together for a long time,” Haitz said. “They really did show them leadership and what it meant to want to push through something. They had gotten to be where they had had some success. And finally, that first year, we got to the regional final game and lost to Holmes. And so that little bit of taste helped those girls want that.”

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They didn’t get it the following season, losing in the opening round of the ever so competitive 33rd district tournament. The hunger had grown during the offseason. They’d decided the 2017-18 season would be much different.

“When they came back (the next season), Lauren and Maddie taught those girls with those other leaders that they had on the team, this is the expectation. This is what we want to do,” Haitz said. “You got to train. You got to be willing to do things outside of practice. You have to be willing to learn the game, have an IQ.”

That team ownership, Haitz said, made her job easier. It allowed her to push them harder and be honest with the players about shortcomings. When success followed, so did the buy in all the way down to the youngest players on the team.

“It really proved to them, ‘I can do this. I have an opportunity just like they do. I can go and train. I can go and put the time in and be successful.’ It’s really pushed our program in the right direction, for sure,” Haitz said.

A couple of those younger players were Holtman and Johnson. Johnson was an eighth grader who played, scoring 113 points on that 2018 team that won Ryle its first region title. Holtman joined the varsity roster as an eighth grader the following season for the Raiders’ state championship run.

“We pulled them up (from middle school) for them to see what the expectation was going to be for them if they wanted to continue this,” Haitz said.

Holtman and Johnson aren’t the only ones who remain from the team that won it all.

“You’ve got Sarah (Baker) and Quinn (Eubank) that were part of that, as well. They saw that stuff. Sarah and Quinn were seventh graders. They saw all those situations – what the expectation was, what they wanted to do, how they wanted to proceed. It’s really helped our program a lot” said Haitz.

Now, it’s Holtman and Johnson playing the roles of Scherr and Schwartz, along with juniors Sarah Baker and Quinn Eubank as team leaders.

“I would think one of my best attributes, one of my favorites, is my leadership and my communication,” Johnson said. “If you ask any of my teammates, I’m a little bit of a talker, sometimes overly talkative. But I think it’s a good thing for our team and our leadership. I’m very blessed to grow within this program and have a lot of other leaders come before me and kind of learn from them and see what worked, what doesn’t work. That’s helped me be the leader I am on and off the floor for this team.”

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Johnson does more than lead. She’s eclipsed 1,000 points in her career but especially takes pride in defending.

“That’s one thing that whether shots are falling for me or I’m kind of out of rhythm, I can always count on my defense and my hustle,” Johnson said.  

Johnson sat out most of her sophomore season with an injury but said seeing the game from the sidelines helped her improve her basketball IQ. She credited Scherr with helping her with that.

“Austin’s been in the program for six years. She decided to take that COVID year. She’s strong for us defensively, that’s her big thing, but she can attack the basket hard. She can handle the ball. She can do a little bit of everything,” Haitz said.

Ryle’s Austin Johnson is a McDonald’s All-American game nominee. Photo provided

Johnson will continue her basketball career at North Greenville, a Division II school in South Carolina. Holtman is staying much closer to home. She’s signed with Cincinnati.

“She’s a threat. She’s always a competitor. She’s out there to win. She makes our team better that helps us spread the floor,” Haitz said of Holtman.

Like Johnson, Holtman has also gone over 1,000 points in her career. She’s leading Ryle in three-pointers made for a fourth consecutive season, sinking at least 60 in every season. Entering Friday’s game at Bishop Brossart, Holtman has hit 269 threes for a program record, shooting 39% for her career. But her abilities extend beyond the three-point line.

“She can handle the ball. She can play good defense. She can move. She’s got a great IQ. All of those things are going to help her at the next level,” Haitz said.

Ryle has a third 1,000-point scorer among its starting five in Eubank, who is also closing in on 1,000 career rebounds as a junior. Fellow junior starter Baker has surpassed 800 points thus far.

“Two players that have been with us for a long time, have a lot of experience. Sarah brings great size for us. Quinn has a lot of length for us. They both rebound well. They’re leading us in assists,” Haitz said.

Haitz adds that factoring in freshman point guard Jaelyn Jones and contributors off the bench, junior Gracie Carrigan and senior Emerson Fong, give the Raiders the kind of versatility that’s difficult to defend for opponents.

Ryle was even tougher to contend with in its quest for a fourth straight region title in 2021, led by Crittendon, Holtman, Johnson, Baker and Eubank. The Raiders entered the region tournament on a 15-game winning streak and a 22-2 record but lost to Notre Dame in the semifinals, 53-50.

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That foundation that had been built with Scherr and Schwartz entering the 2017-18 season continued to manifest itself going into the 2021-22 season, with the Raiders resolute to return to the region final. And they did. But Ryle lost to Cooper in both the district and region championship games, after having beaten its rival twice during the regular season.

When the two faced off again on Jan. 13, Cooper bested Ryle for a third straight time, 63-58. That has set up Ryle against Conner and Cooper against Boone County in the opening round of the 33rd District Tournament on Feb. 21. Based on Ryle’s 17-point win over Conner on Jan. 20 and Cooper’s 56-13 win over Boone County the same night, one would expect a rematch between Cooper and Ryle in the district final. That would put both in the Ninth Region tournament and among the favorites to win it, along with All “A” Classic state champion Holy Cross and Dixie Heights, which has won 11 of its last 12 since losing to Ryle, 61-51, back on Jan. 6.

The Raiders core four of Holtman, Johnson, Baker and Eubank have experienced four region final games combined. Johnson played in all four. The other three were there for three of them and played in two. They’re all aware how tough a task it is to reach the region final.

“The girls know this,” Haitz said. “It was the same discussion when we lost to Cooper in the districts (last season), and we knew we had to play Notre Dame (in the first round of the region tournament). We just said, ‘This is what we’ve been going for. This is what we’ve prepared for. We’re going to do everything we can.’ And we did. We pulled through.”

Ryle got by Notre Dame, 53-51, avenging its loss to the Pandas in the region semifinals the year prior. The Raiders then beat Newport Central Catholic by 22 in the semis before clashing with Cooper for a fourth time last season, falling, 53-45, in the region championship.

“We’ve been saying all year long, ‘team.’ That’s kind of our big motto this year is working together. So, I think that’s going to be the biggest thing for us is working together down the stretch and building off of each other,” Johnson said. “We have so many special talents on this team that can provide different things for us. It’s bringing those things together at the right time and playing all four quarters. That’s a big thing for us. I’m excited to see us do that in district and hopefully, regional play.”

For Holtman and Johnson, this is it. One last shot at playing in the Sweet 16. When Ryle won it in 2019, Holtman was there, as were Baker and Eubank, but they were middle-schoolers who didn’t play. They did at least get to experience winning a state championship in Rupp Arena. Johnson was there, too, and did play.

“That’s probably my favorite memory throughout my whole career. That feeling of us running on to the court for the first time at Rupp is something that I will never forget,” Johnson said. “I’ll never forget checking in (the game) for the first time and running onto the floor, and all the big lights and getting announced at the very last game in the finals and obviously winning it. I mean, that’s a feeling that I’ve been wanting back for a long time. I think with this team and how far we’ve gotten so far this year, I’m excited to see where we go in this postseason run.”

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