WESTFIELD, Mass. – With the Owls' senior day on the horizon, Westfield State senior running back Travon Holder has etched his name in the school's record book with more than 3,000 yards rushing and 35 career touchdowns.
If you had told him that he would have accomplished this by the time he graduates, Holder said he's "Shocked, surprised and grateful that I could make an impact at Westfield State. It's great to have been part of something like this with the people around me and great support. Every day is a push to get better."
'We're just trying to get better today' has long been a mantra of Westfield State's fifth-year head coach Pete Kowalski, who has seen his team improve from two wins in 2016, to three in 2017, to four in 2018 with two games remaining on the schedule.
"We've definitely gotten better," said Holder. "People want to come out and support us, I have seen that change, and beating West Conn last year was a big change, and everybody on the team has bought in."
The Owls recruited Holder, a Hartford, Conn., native, out of Cheney Technical High School.
"I went to see a game, actually to see a running back on another team, and we found Travon," said Owls' assistant coach Tom Hinsch, who recruits Connecticut, "Coach Kowalski asked me what I thought of the player we went to see, and I said he was pretty good, but wait until you see Travon Holder play. He was something special and really stuck out."
"Coach K was great when he came to my school, we had a meeting after school, he and coach Hinsch came to talk to me and gave me the rundown, and I felt very important in their recruiting process," said Holder.
"I like this environment here (at Westfield). It's not too far from home. It's a great space, not too big and not to small, and overall there are great people here I felt like this was a perfect spot for me."
Holder was not aware of the tradition of standout running backs at Westfield State when the recruiting process began, but he currently sits fourth on the Owls' all-time rushing list with 3,076 yards, and fourth in career scoring with 216 career points.
Westfield State has a tradition of a strong running game that dates back to the early 1990's when all-time leading rusher Tim Lightfoot (4,380 yards) passed the baton to a group that included standouts Jason Votzaikis (3,809) , Shawn Lyman (2,659), and Don Jones (3,126), and more recently Michael Mercadante (2,993).
"Those guys have all been great running backs, I wouldn't dare to compare them all," said Kowalski. "For a lot of that time I was the defensive coordinator, and I loved them because it kept our defense off the field all that time we could run the ball so well."
"The expectations of a running back when I got here were very high, so I had to set my standards high," said Holder. "It was definitely a learning experience for me as well."
Coming in to Westfield, the year after Mike Mercadante, the Owls 6-0, 230-lb. battering ram of a back graduated, Holder found a lot of changes from the high school game.
"It was all power, power, power, and I'm smaller," said Holder, who is listed at 5-9 and 183 lbs. "I definitely had to buy into the different playing style . . . figure out how I could do the same thing but use my size and speed as well. I'm more of a speed back than a power back, and use cutting rather than running through somebody. I want to do whatever I can to make the team the best that it can be."
Holder battled through some injuries in his freshman and sophomore year as he ran for 385 yards as a freshman and 764 as a sophomore. His breakout year came as a junior, erupting for 1,147 yards and 10 touchdowns.
"It was frustrating, I wouldn't say it's a setback, but a learning experience for me," said Holder of his first two seasons. "You don't understand college football until you play it, and there are definitely bigger people than at the high school level … I really had to pay more attention to my body and how I go about getting ready to play and take care of my body overall."
"He's worked to get better every year," said Kowalski. "He never wanted to get real bulky, so his first year he worked on his speed, to be quicker and more elusive. Then he worked on his receiving skills so we can split him out if we go empty in the backfield, and all those things roll up into the player Travon is now."
"His freshman year there were flashes, he was a solid runner but there were flashes of how good he could be," added Kowalski. "He's a hard runner a tough runner, but you'd see him go into a group of tacklers, and one guy never brings him down. As a coach, you're thinking ahead and in your mind, you think it's going to be second and 7, but he keeps going and it's second and 1, or first and 10 on the next play. He runs with tremendous heart and desire."
"I don't know how that happens," said Holder. "I just keep moving my feet, and normally somebody is there to help me keep moving my feet … I just don't stop, and I hope my team doesn't stop, and they haven't.
"He has great vision, gets through the hole, and then sees the maze of defenders and has the ability to pick his route through the maze, almost like the puzzles we'd all do as kids," said Kowalski.
The Owls development on the offensive line has been another key to Holder's success, as the core of that unit has been together for several years as well.
"Part of Tray's success is directly proportional to the improvement on our offensive line," said Kowalski. "We have an all-conference center in Saul Cabrera, and we are strong and tough up the middle with Andrew Horstmann and Chris Saba at the guards. Any running back will tell you how much that helps them, and having Jake Cassidy as a run threat himself at quarterback is also an advantage. But our O-line is a tight-knit group, and they are proud, competitive and physical."
"Last year – being with the team, understanding more, we had better chemistry as we got to know each other, and how we play together and have more chemistry on the field," said Holder. "They understand how I run, and I understand how they block for me."
Over the past few years "everybody was growing together. We all bought in together, off-season we worked out, played basketball, things that make the chemistry more powerful and that transitions to the football field," said Holder.
"We've always hung our hat on being a tough and physical football team," said Kowalski. "Even as teams are winging it all over the place, being able to run the ball, and have that mindset is something we still have."
A criminal justice major with a minor in psychology, Holder wants to bring what he has learned back to his hometown.
"My CJ classes are great, I definitely engage in them," said Holder. "I come from Hartford, and there is a fair amount of crime, and I've seen that violence, and I want to take what I have seen and what I have learned and see how I can make a difference in my field, and how can I impact the community and the criminal justice system. I'd like to work with kids, and let them see how much more is out there."
"He's a hard worker in his classes, he's always quick to volunteer in the community and with anything that will help kids," adds Kowalski. "He works with our younger running backs. He's a guy who's never had an issue. In fact I've had professors contact me to tell me how well he's doing."
The Owls hope to keep swooping into Connecticut to find college football talent, as their roster currently includes 18 players with Connecticut ties.
"Half of Connecticut is closer to Westfield than it is to Western Connecticut State," said Hinsch. "There are a lot of good high school programs, and there is proximity tuition for some areas, so we've been able to get bit of a pipeline going."
"We've had a lot off success recruiting in Connecticut," added Kowalski. "There are 40 schools that play football in Massachusetts, and just a handful in Connecticut. Westfield State is a great option for a lot of young men."
There's still some unfinished business on the field for Holder, who has two games remaining as Westfield State hosts Plymouth State this Saturday at 2:00 p.m. as part of the Owls senior day, then travel to his home state to face Western Connecticut, a team that currently leads the MASCAC standings, which the Owls upset last year, 18-0.
"Win. That's the ultimate goal," said Holder. "I'm not big on stats, I'm big on winning as a team. I try my best no matter what. I just want to win."
But the final game of the year in his home state will be an important one as well.
"I have a lot of friends and family coming out, it definitely will be that 'tearing up game'," he said. "I gotta do whatever I can; there's gonna be a lot of pressure on me, but it is what it is and I'm ready to go to war. "