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Shasta County Sports 2021 Heisman: Holden Gilbert | West Valley

Eagles’ all-around talent shines in lone North State season

West Valley High's Holden Gilbert is the Shasta County Sports Heisman winner for the 2021 spring season. (Photos by Mike Daly and Tony Hord, graphic by Aaron Williams/Shasta County Sports)

Holden Gilbert didn’t know what to expect for the spring football season. The North State didn’t know who he was.

The West Valley senior wound up leading the Eagles to an undefeated season as a three-way player and showed the rest of the football community the transfer from Oregon was legit.

“I honestly had no idea what to expect,” Gilbert said. “I wasn’t sure what was going to happen coming off COVID.”

Gilbert ran for 659 yards on 83 carries with seven touchdowns. He was the team’s kicker. And while his impact was felt on the offensive end, Gilbert was a ferocious middle linebacker who anchored a defense that allowed less than eight points per night.

Holden Gilbert joins Baily Sulzer and Cade Lambert as the third straight West Valley player, respectively, to earn Shasta County Sports Heisman honors. This year’s Heisman is presented by Tri Counties Bank.

“I remember before the season started and you guys (Shasta County Sports) were talking about breakout players and I knew Holden was poised for a big year,” said Lenny Ehn, the Eagles’ first-year varsity coach. “Not only is he a natural athlete, but he’s the first to show up and the last to leave.

“He reminds me of Barry Sanders or Emmitt Smith because he’s small and can change direction easily. He doesn’t always pass the eyeball test, but it only takes a couple of minutes to see he’s the real deal.”

Gilbert, who played youth in the Jr. Eagles system, moved to Sherwood, Ore., but returned to Cottonwood for his senior year. And if there can be a silver lining out of the COVID-delayed football season it’s that the time spent waiting for the spring kickoff allowed him time to bond with his Eagle teammates.

“A lot of kids knew him from youth and he came in and just worked,” Ehn said. “And when it didn’t appear there was going to be a season, he continued to work hard.”

And it showed in the first game against Shasta.

The game appeared to be an almost opening-night Super Bowl as the Wolves and Eagles looked – on paper, at least – to be the two best teams in the county.

While much attention was on returners Josh Aguilar and Hayden Boyes along with sophomore quarterback Noah Mason, Gilbert provided balance in the offense while posting 145 yards rushing on 22 carries. His lone score proved to be the difference in the fourth quarter.

And while the eye-opening runs surely made the highlight reel, it’s on defense that Ehn said Gilbert’s impact was really felt.

“There are two plays that standout from that game,” the coach said. “The first is a backside screen that Shasta runs really well. It was late in the game and Holden stayed home and made the tackle, probably saving a touchdown.

“The second play was in the second quarter and he beat their pulling guard (to the point of impact) and made the tackle in open space. It showed just how athletic he truly is.”

Foothill coach Joey Brown said Gilbert made the Eagles’ roster bigger by all the things he was able to do on the field.

“Offensively, he gave them a totally different look; a different spark, a different gear,” Brown said. “And because they switched (defensive) coordinators, they played a lot of base and to have that kind of impact in base, you have to be a special athlete.”

After the Shasta win, the Eagles rolled over Lassen and U-Prep before gutting out a 21-7 win over Foothill in a game not originally on the schedule.

Then came Central Valley, the season finale and 48 minutes for a perfect season.

Only the Falcons didn’t get that memo. A gritty program on the rise under then-coach Aaron Richards, who has since taken the Shasta job, Central Valley had been the nail to the West Valley hammer for the better part of a decade.

Only a couple of things happened on that April night. First, the Falcons’ game plan of bleeding clock and keeping the ball from Gilbert and the Eagles’ offense worked to perfection. Second, the Eagles came in a little complacent.

“CV was up for that game and they hit us in the mouth,” Ehn said.

After a sluggish first half, the Eagles came out with adjustments – mainly, feed Gilbert the rock.

“I knew if I could get the ball and get going, we’d be OK,” Gilbert said.

He scored on a 3-yard plunge toward the end of the third period. He was set up on the ensuing possession as Boyes picked off a CV pass and returned it to the Falcons’ 3 where Gilbert added his second 3-yard score.

But the Falcons wouldn’t go away and tied the game at 13. When several West Valley desperation heaves fell short at the buzzer, the game headed to bonus time.

On the Eagles’ first possession, Gilbert took matters into his hands, scoring from 19 yards out to put the onus on the Falcons.

Gilbert finished the night with 131 yards on 17 carries and all three Eagle scores in the 19-13 overtime victory that clinched the perfect season.

“He didn’t care about any of the credit,” Ehn said. “It was all about the team and winning.

“He’s a coach’s dream. He just does everything right. He’s a great student and the total package. He’s the type of kid who’s going to do the right thing even when no one’s around.”

Gilbert said he’d like to continue playing and has been lifting with the Shasta College team over the summer.

One thing’s for sure – he won’t take anyone in Shasta County by surprise.

Aaron Williams has been involved in the North State sports scene for nearly two decades. He spent eight years as the Sports Editor for the local newspaper and another four more as the voice of high school football on the radio. Williams has coached various sports at the high school level over the past decade, most recently at Shasta High, and is also the public address announcer for the Shasta College football and basketball teams.

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