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On the cover of The Blade’s 2012 high school football season preview section, four talented returning quarterbacks from the Three Rivers Athletic Conference were posed in front of an airplane with the headline “Air Attack.”
Whitmer senior Nick Holley was not in that picture.
But, as the season enters its 14th weekend with state playoff semifinals on tap, the Panthers’ quarterback has flown higher and is more worthy of a solo cover shot than any area player.
Nick Holley, born 20 minutes after twin brother and teammate Nate Holley, is listed on Whitmer roster as 6-feet and 175 pounds.
When pressed, Nick admits he is closer to 5-11 and 168.
But most who have played against him, or watched him this season, might say he plays more like 6-3 and 220 pounds.
A fearless ball carrier who often initiates contact with defenders, Holley could be described as a wrecking ball with agility and speed. An adept runner who also possesses finesse throwing the football.
Holley has 1,734 rushing yards and 19 touchdowns on 208 carries, and he has completed 115 of 183 passes (63 percent) for 1,587 yards and 21 TDs.
Those numbers, and the heart of the player who has produced them, are a big reason Whitmer has gone 13-0, won its fourth straight league championship, earned a No. 3 state ranking, and advanced to a third consecutive Division I state semifinal.
They are also why Nick Holley is the 2012 All-Blade player of the year.
“Nick can make plays at any given time, with his arm or with his feet,” Whitmer head coach Jerry Bell said. “Having him back there builds a confidence in his teammates.
“They believe in him as a competitor and as a leader. He gets more out of the guys around him because of that. The way he hits opponents sometimes just ignites our kids.
“We hang our hat on being physical, and being a blue-collar, smash-mouth football team, even though we run a spread offense. When you get those kinds of things from your quarterback, kids tend to rally around that sort of stuff.”
So, why wasn’t a player of this caliber included in that August cover shot?
Mainly because, before this season, Holley had never taken a snap of varsity football at quarterback.
His last prior run as a signal-caller came in 2009 on Whitmer’s freshman team. Since his sophomore year, Holley had played defensive back and was a key special-teams player.
If not for a twist of fate, it is highly likely Holley would have never played at QB.
Not long after Whitmer’s 13-1 season of 2011 ended, then head coach Joe Palka accepted an administrative and head coaching position at Saline (Mich.) High School.
Along with him went now senior son Tyler Palka, who was Whitmer’s quarterback. He had a sterling senior season, leading Saline to the Michigan Division 1 regional finals, where it lost 21-14 to Detroit Cass Tech.
Nick Holley and the Panthers are scheduled to face seventh-ranked Mentor (12-1) in a D-I semifinal Saturday at 7 p.m. at Arlin Field in Mansfield.
When he arrives there, once again, Nick Holley will be “the other quarterback.”
Mentor senior Mitch Trubisky (3,712 passing yards, 39 TDs), the front-runner for Ohio’s Mr. Football award, has led the Cardinals to wild victories over Lakewood St. Edward (63-56) and Cleveland St. Ignatius (57-56 in three overtimes) in the last two playoff games.
St. Ed and St. Ignatius are winners of the last two D-I state championships, respectively, and the teams that eliminated Whitmer in the 2010 and 2011 semifinals.
But, if the 2012 season is any indication, it may be unwise to count out Nick Holley and the rest of the Panthers.
“Without Nick as our leader, I’m sure we’re not as far as we are today,” Bell said.
The Holley twins were 8 years old when they first suited up for organized football as members of their Whiteford Bobcats team. By then, they were already showing their budding talents, and a competitiveness honed by the one-on-one battles they staged at home.
“All of our lives we’ve been best friends,” Nick said of Nate, “but when we were kids we used to fight about two times a day. When we got older it got to the point where my mom [Lori Holley] would have to call my dad [Toledo firefighter Paul Holley] home from work to separate us. It got pretty bad.”
Who won those battles?
“Whoever didn’t give up first, and usually neither one of us gave up,” Nick said. “Sometimes I’d win, sometimes he’d win, and sometimes it was a draw. We still fight.”
In addition to youth football, the Holley twins also participated in baseball, basketball, soccer and track.
“We were always competing with each other,” Nick said. “We never got bored. Not wanting to lose to him is what made me compete harder.”
There was one competition that Nick Holley said he was not part of — a shot at quarterback in his sophomore and junior seasons.
“I was disappointed with the way it was handled,” Nick said. “Honestly, it fueled me, because it made me mad. I felt like I at least deserved a chance, and I didn’t think I was getting that chance.
“I used that to fuel me to play cornerback, just to get on the field and play varsity. I just kept my mouth shut and worked as hard as I could.”
Entering this season, he was eager to show the talent Whitmer had been missing. Perhaps a little too eager.
“Coach Bell told me before the season, ‘Hey, I know you’ve had lost years and haven’t gotten to do this before, but don’t try making up for it in one play,’ ” Nick Holley said. “Coach said, ‘Play within yourself, and the rest will follow.’
“Now that our team has gone 13-0, I feel like we’ve proved ourselves," Nick said. "And, being the quarterback, I feel like, so far, I’ve proved myself. But, we’re not there yet.”
Where does his wrecking-ball fearlessness come from?
“I just come out with the same mind set every game,” Nick Holley said. “I play as hard as I can to the best of my ability, and if things work out, they work out. I try to give my team 120 percent, take advantage of the opportunity, and I don’t take it for granted.”
He has received no college scholarship offers. The only interest he has gotten has been from the University of Findlay, which he said was looking at him as a defensive back or a receiver.
“I honestly believe he could walk on right now, with no scholarship offers, at any MAC school,” Bell said. “Give him one or two more years and he will play at that capacity, whether it’s at DB or receiver. With his determination, quarterback’s not out of the question either.”
Contact Steve Junga at: firstname.lastname@example.org, or 419-724-6461 or on Twitter@JungaBlade.