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Meeting his destiny: Path to Ahlers' start paved with local triumphs

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Holton Ahlers, 12, stands behind Elm Street Park after breaking the Greenville Little Leagues' single-season home run record in 2012. Ahlers went on to star at D.H. Conley High School and is now East Carolina's starting quarterback.

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By RONNIE WOODWARD
The Daily Reflector

Saturday, October 20, 2018

Before Holton Ahlers signed on Dec. 20, 2017, to play football at East Carolina, he was a star quarterback at D.H. Conley High School. Before that, a baseball slugger unlike anyone else who had ever played on Greenville recreational fields.

“That thing broke my darn windshield!" a woman yelled in 2012 from the parking lot outside of Elm Street Park, where her car was the landing spot for one of Ahlers’ still-talked-about home runs as a Little Leaguer.

He was 12 years old, standing 6-feet and 185 pounds.

The moon-shot of a hit was a benchmark in his legendary path from Chicod School to D.H. Conley to being named East Carolina’s starting quarterback, a position he will hold for the first time tonight, exactly three weeks shy of his 19th birthday.

An ECU football rule for freshmen has prevented Ahlers from doing interviews with local media to this point in the season, but it can be difficult to find someone in Greenville who already doesn’t have some type of story to tell about the homegrown, likable left-hander.

“He’s bigger than life, and he’s been bigger than life ever since he came through Little League,” Greenville Little Leagues commissioner Brian Weingartz said.

Six years later, a YouTube clip of his glass-smashing home run has more than 2 million views.

On the diamond

Weingartz doesn’t think the Greenville Little Leagues’ single-season home run record that Ahlers holds will ever be broken.

He hit 27 home runs in 22 games in 2012.

The game in which Ahlers, who is now 6-3 and 236 pounds, shattered a windshield was part of a four-homer performance. A potential fifth was caught at the center field wall by 9-year-old Lukas Rickenbach, who like many others, was dwarfed in size compared to Ahlers.

“We have a lot of kids who come through and they have a lot of size, but he was able to combine his size with being just an absolute terrific baseball player,” Weingartz said. “You put those two things together and put it on a Little League field, and we saw something really special.”

Ahlers also played recreational basketball. Weingartz said league championships often were decided by which team was lucky enough to draft Ahlers.

His skills in all sports were superior to those of his peers, except maybe when he engaged in a pitchers’ duel with now-Georgia Bulldogs starting quarterback Jake Fromm during the 2011 Little League Southeast Regional tournament. Ahlers struck out 10 batters in 4 1/3 innings. Fromm fanned nine in 3 1/3 innings.

Ahlers’ first tackle football game was in seventh grade for Chicod. He immediately began to transform from a multi-talented recreational anomaly into a bonafide scholastic quarterback, able to overpower defenders when running the ball and also pass the ball when needed.

He arrived at Conley as a potential three-sport star.

He played in one JV baseball game, then was called up to varsity to help a Vikings team that already included two future NCAA Division I pitchers and current East Carolina All-American outfielder Bryant Packard.

With about 20 Major League Baseball scouts in attendance for a Conley game at Raleigh Millbook and no shortage of talent to see, scouts kept asking Conley baseball coach Jason Mills about the big left-hander wearing No. 24.

Ahlers, a sophomore outfielder, was taking batting practice.

He played baseball and basketball his first two years at Conley, then decided to focus exclusively on football. He was a four-year starter, his 11,198 career passing yards ranking third in North Carolina High School Athletic Association history.

“I can almost assure you that he would have been a draft pick in Major League Baseball, if he would have stuck it out,” Mills said. “Holton working so hard in the weight room like he did and as athletic as he was, that is what made everybody so intrigued about him being a possible major league prospect. You can never be too big.”

There was a sense all along, even by Mills and Conley basketball coach Rob Maloney, that Ahlers was eventually going to be a football player.

“He’s so fierce and competitive, and I think honestly that is what always drew him to football was the brotherhood aspect of it,” Holton’s oldest brother, 26-year-old, Jordan, said.

In the classroom

Ahlers was a third-grader during Daniel Hall’s first year as the Chicod physical education teacher in 2007.

“You kind of had to wait a minute and think if he was in the right class or not,” Hall said. “He was a good bit taller and bigger than everyone else. But even then, what stood out was that he had a positive attitude and he always worked hard.”

As his youth sports accolades piled up, Ahlers’ popularity in school grew proportionately.

At Conley, his accomplishments drew even more attention and recruiters quickly began showering him with interest. College football coaches from around the country visited Greenville.

Through it all, he remained humble.

“He was a kid that made other kids cool,” Conley football coach Nate Conner said. “He would take some odd kids that didn’t quite fit in in class or the school building and he would latch on to them. He would make them feel like they fit in.”

Ahlers finished his high school academic requirements last December, taking his final exam at Conley just a few days before signing with the Pirates. He enrolled at ECU in January, earning dean’s list honors in his first semester while also participating in spring football workouts.

Having already earned dean’s list distinction on a college campus, he participated in the D.H. Conley graduation ceremony on June 9.

Ahlers might not have a direct link to the current students at Chicod, but they are aware of his rise in Greenville.

“They know that he went to Chicod and now he is going to be the starting quarterback at ECU, and that is pretty exciting,” Hall said.

Rose-Conley rivalry

Not much was slowing Ahlers, a sophomore, or J.H. Rose senior star player Cornell Powell in their third-round state playoff game the day after Thanksgiving on Nov. 27, 2015.

Except for a drone.

Conley had the ball and was looking to take a potential decisive lead when play was stopped because a drone was hovering over the field. Officials wouldn’t resume play until the sky was cleared, and when it was, Powell and Rose held on for a 49-47 victory at Conley en route to making the 4-A state finals.

“That was the one game we circled every year,” Powell, now a junior receiver for Clemson, wrote in a text message earlier this week. “We knew exactly what to expect from each other.”

Ahlers and Powell played against each other twice in high school, both in 2015, with each school winning once. The duo accounted for 10 combined touchdowns in “The Drone Game.” Ahlers had six.

“We had those two guys just going up and down the field, then all of the sudden there is a drone over the 50-yard line and all you could think was, ‘What next?’” said Maloney, who also is D.H. Conley’s athletics director.

Powell scored 38 touchdowns his senior year. He totaled 264 all-purpose yards in the North Carolina-South Carolina Shrine Bowl All-Star game.

Ahlers, the Shrine Bowl MVP two years later, ended his career ranked second in NCHSAA history with 14,784 yards of total offense.

Ahlers was responsible for nine touchdowns in a 77-67 loss to Rose in 2016. As a senior the next year, he tied a state record with nine passing touchdowns in a game against South Central.

He picked ECU over N.C. State, Georgia, Colorado State and others. Florida offered him a scholarship the day before he signed with the Pirates, and even Alabama coach Nick Saban made a late recruiting call to the No. 1 QB prospect in North Carolina.

“I knew Holton would go on to be an amazing college athlete, whether it was baseball or football,” Powell said. “Him being named the starter at ECU was only a matter of time. You can’t deny talent like that for so long. I wish him all the best and the utmost success.”

In the yard

Ahlers has three older brothers — Peyton, Griff and Jordan — and their father, Morgan, has long said that Holton’s competitive edge was molded from being the youngest of the four boys. They all got their size from their father, who played college basketball and is the public address announcer for ECU home football games.

Their mother, Jill, had the perfect patch of grass in her yard, about 10 yards by eight yards, for goal-line football simulations. Holton did not back down, even in fourth or fifth grade when neighborhood games featured mostly middle-schoolers and scuffles were bound to happen.

When it rained, the Ahlers boys did Oklahoma-style tackling drills on the living room carpet with a perfect setup of two versus two.

That was until Holton could no longer be denied.

“If you tackled him, he would get right back up,” Jordan said. “He wouldn’t stop. It got to the point where we couldn’t tackle him anymore.”

Tonight

ECU coach Scottie Montgomery has stressed this week that Ahlers is going to make mistakes tonight at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium, but he is committed to Ahlers and his potential.

The Pirates haven’t started a true freshman quarterback since Oct. 16, 1993.

Although this will be his first-career start, Ahlers has been a key player for the Pirates for most of the season as a reserve running-quarterback specialist. He is the team’s leading rusher, but was shaky as a passer until last Saturday against Houston, when he had a breakthrough moment with his first-career TD pass during the fourth quarter.

“We all have to understand that he is going to have some plays in there that we just don’t necessarily like what they look like,” Montgomery said of starting a freshman QB against undefeated Central Florida for a game that will be broadcast nationally on ESPN2.

Ahlers’ first of potentially many starts is being accompanied by a special sense of pride in Greenville, probably even by the woman whose windshield was shattered six years ago.

“I think it’s evident in his personality that he is a kid who has grown up in this community and this community has kind of raised him, in a lot of ways,” Conner said.

Contact Ronnie Woodward at rwoodward@reflector.com, 252-329-9592 and follow @RonnieW11 on Twitter.

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