Fastpitch. Fun. Family. Faith.
Those are the top priorities in the life of Rylee Holtorf, the sophomore at Sandra Day O’Conner in Phoenix, Arizona, who last Friday was named as the top player in the 2021 Extra Elite 100.
We guarantee those “four F’s” that drive her to be the success she is on and off the field are definitely not prioritized in that order--in fact, they may be in reverse order--but together complete the package that makes the 15-year-old--she turns 16 on February 17--a special talent.
Rylee, who has committed to the University of Washington, helped her Mizuno Storm 14U team win the Colorado Sparkler Jr. Power Pool this summer and finish 3rd at PGF Nationals.
She has also been playing a lot of competition at the 18U level for Corey Mathis’s team based out of Arizona and not missed a beat.
Adds the coach: “This fall our Storm team played mostly all 18U in showcases and tournaments and Rylee still hit .526 with 17 home runs in 82 at-bats.”
“She has great range, awesome feet, a strong arm and elite hands while playing middle infield and third base,” he continues. “Rylee has an instinct and softball IQ that cannot be taught. She’s honestly every coach’s dream on the field with the way she communicates and leads. She plays every pitch like it matters the most. Her energy on the field shows that she truly is playing a game she loves.”
At the high school level playing for Sandra Day O’Connor (Phoenix, Arizona) High last spring, the then-freshman batted .516 with 42 RBIs and 48 hits to earn All-American honors and lead her team to the quarterfinals.
Those are the stats and facts… now we’ll learn more about the four key areas that make up the complete package of this accomplished student-athlete…
Rylee’s earliest memories of softball involve her playing in a neighborhood park where she’d hit a whiffle ball at the age of 6. She and a fellow softball player, Amber Brewer, who was then 10 and is now a freshman at Carroll College in Montana, would go to the park and be tossed balls thrown by Rylee’s father, Ronnie, who has long been a coach in her life after being a college baseball player at Grand Canyon University.
“We were always outside with a ball and bat,” Rylee remembers, “and that’s when I first started loving the sport.”
Her mother, Ryanne (pronounced “Ryan”), was a college softball pitcher and, like her husband, saw the competitive fire in their oldest daughter when she was very young.
“On the field,” begins her father, “Rylee always had ‘it’… I don’t know how to explain it. We are a sports family and when she was four or five years old competing in a co-ed basketball league, we’d put her against the top player and tell her, ‘Don’t let him score’ and she would shut him down.”
“Rylee was always driven to be better than those around her,” Ronnie Holtorf continues. “When she was seven, we signed her up with a rec softball league and she didn’t know much about the game, but when she would bat, she would do it with a purpose. Rylee was always anxious to compete--she’d slide or dive or do whatever it would take to win. She was gung-ho from the beginning.”
The athlete’s mother says she knew when Rylee was about 12-years-old that she had what it would take to play in college.
“When she was in the 6th grade, or somewhere about there, I saw she really loved it,” Ryanne Holtorf says. “We as her parents would always go out to help her, but her dad would tell Rylee she could do things on her own and we’d find her in the backyard doing a lot of work alone on her hitting. We could see it was paying off and she realized it too. I’ll always give credit to her dad because he’s into mechanics and Rylee would apply it to get better. You could see she was always thinking about improving and making it to the next level.”
The infielder credits being surrounded by talented players who raised her game and she gives kudos to defensive wiz Grace Lyons, currently a freshman infielder at the University of Oklahoma and fellow O’Connor alum, for elevating her game.
“I would go take ground balls with her when I was in 5th grade and she was in high school,” Rylee recalls. “My freshman year and her senior year we got to play together during the high school season and Grace showed me the ropes of how to be a leader on and off the field.”
Another factor in the development of the athlete, her father believes, was traveling to California to play against elite talent on a regular basis.
“Going over to California and playing against that club competition from an early age has taught Rylee not to be afraid of anybody,” he feels. “We learned you couldn’t let your guard down there, that every single game you have to play at your best. Over time, we would see the same top kids going to college camps and OnDeck camps and realized that Rylee could play with them.”
Part of the reason for Rylee’s current success is she’s always had an inward desire to better herself, which her parents frequently witnessed first-hand.
“I’ll come home from work,” says Ronnie, whose day job is to do tract home grading with tractors, moving and hauling dirt, “and I’ll hear her in the backyard throwing the ball against a wall or doing hitting work. It’ll be 10 pm at other times and I’ll find her doing lunges or wrist curls. She’s always into the process of getting better.”
The part-time coach and full-time father says it wasn’t long before others started confirming his thoughts that Rylee was major college material.
“People would tell me when she was a second-year 12U player and playing up at 14U stuff like, ‘You have something special here.’ I would see her power and how the ball came off the bat as well and when we were at home taking ground balls, it was apparent how good she was defensively.”
Ronnie Holtorff credits the OnDeck Softball events for helping launch Rylee into being a national recruit.
She attended a Phoenix tryout in September of 2015 and out of over 100 kids of all ages, 17 were invited to attend the Jamborees and West Coast Elite Camp run by Derek and Joann Allister and their family.
“We went to the Arizona Jamboree and the Colorado one plus the West Coast Elite Camp,” the father of four remembers. “All the top college programs came to look at the twins from our program, Sophia and Aris Carroll (current juniors committed to Arizona), and the OnDeck events were the biggest thing to help Rylee get noticed.”
“She was in the 7th grade and got 20 ground balls, 20 swings and did some testing, but when the Allisters selected her to go to the Colorado Jamboree, a lot of coaches were there. Rylee got a big jump in playing in front of these big-time schools and that helped her to relax for the future when she really got watched.”
In the fall of 2015, Rylee was invited to an Oklahoma Elite Camp and competed at the event with 29 great athletes from around the nation. Being with many of the best players in the country also helped the Arizona infielder and her parents realize she was right there with them.
“I remember thinking,” the athlete’s father continues, “that she didn’t really look that different. I told Rylee, ‘You can play at this level.’”
The infielder would soon be invited, or visit on her own, several college campuses in the West including Oregon, Arizona, Grand Canyon and Washington.
What interested Rylee in the Husky program was what she saw in Heather Tarr’s team when the Pac-12 school visited Arizona to play a double header against Grand Canyon and a weekend series against the University of Arizona.
“We went and watched Washington play against Grand Canyon,” Ronnie Holtorf remembers, “and what really caught Rylee’s eye was how infielders like Ali Aguilar, Sis Bates and Taylor Van Zee would play. They had such passion and energy and Rylee noticed how much fun they were having. Between the double header games, she said, ‘I want to play there.’”
What the middle schooler noticed and was impressed by was not the wins, but how the Husky players and coaches handled the adversity of losing.
“Danielle O’Toole pitched a no-hitter for Arizona against Washington and we were watching to see how everyone was handling it,” continues Ronnie. “They all had a positive energy about them and it was impressive. The next day Washington lost by 11 and Taylor and Sis and Ali were dancing and having fun and playing like they were winning by 11. Don’t get me wrong, they were business-like and obviously were playing to win and get to the Women’s College World Series, but there a different energy--a fun energy--about them and that’s what impressed Rylee.”
That weekend, the young athlete said she wanted to go to Seattle and check out the school.
“We called them that weekend in May of 2016 and told them we were coming up, basically we invited ourselves,” Ronnie laughs. “I really didn’t think they’d make an offer, but they did and before we went home Rylee said, ‘I’m done, I want to be a Husky.’ They’d offered her verbally and I told her, ‘You can’t do it now, we have to talk to your Mom.”
After going home, Rylee became more convinced of her decision and two weeks later called Heather Tarr and committed over the phone.
“I still have that recording,” she says.
Rylee may live by the 4 “F’s,” but her family is all “R’s.” As in her parents Ronnie and Ryanne and siblings Reese, Raegan and Reid.
Ronnie, the father, played baseball at Grand Canyon University along with an older brother. A younger brother also played collegiately.
Ryanne, the mother, was a standout in softball and pitched her freshman year at New Mexico State before transferring to Phoenix College where her team won the JC National Championship. She had offers to continue to play at bigger schools as she threw in the 60’s range with a good rise and change-up, but decided to retire and start a family.
The two athletes had met at Moon Valley High School in Phoenix when Ronnie was a junior and Ryanne was a freshman. Eventually, they’d marry and have three daughters and a son--all of them being accomplished athletes.
Rylee became a highly sought-after softball player while Reese (age 14) matriculated towards volleyball. Raegan (12) is on a Mizuno Storm 12U team that her parents help coach as does Rylee when she has time. Reid (8) plays all sports, but loves baseball.
Living in Peoria, Arizona, a suburb of Phoenix, the Holtorf family is seemingly always on the road at somebody’s game or match.
“We usually get everyone everywhere we need to be,” laughs Ronnie, “and we’re fortunate to have grandparents that can help.”
There’s a discrepancy as to who the best athlete in the family is. Rylee says it’s her dad because “Mom’s a pitcher and they aren’t athletes,” but quickly adds, “I’m joking, but I better tell her how much I love her now.”
The father says it might be Ryanne as “she still throws in the 60’s and can bring it, plus she runs seven to eight miles or more per day.”
On her part, the mother says “Rylee has definitely set the bar high because she’s a freak athlete--can I say that?--and sometimes I feel bad because it’s hard to follow in her footsteps. She’s a natural born leader and everyone looks up to her too.”
Rylee is quick to give her appreciation for having parents--both of whom coach as assistants in the Storm organization--who have been undying supporters of her softball dreams.
“I wouldn’t be the player or person I am today without the time and commitment of my parents. They want nothing but the best for me and have always pushed me to be different and reminded me to be humble.”
“I’m so grateful to have parents who willingly hit me ground balls and willingly throw me BP whenever I ask. My dad may be hard on me sometimes as my coach, but I wouldn’t want it any other way. Him constantly pushing me has made me work my hardest and never settle for anything less than my best. I owe a huge amount of my success and process to my parents and the time they invested into me and my softball career.
Rylee confesses something that would surprise many.
“I don’t want to be remembered for softball,” she says softly. “I want to be remembered for being able to share my faith through softball.”
One attribute that most mention about the athlete is her ability to stay focused and unaffected, handling the disappointment of a loss or a bad game like the inconsequential outcome it, in time, turns out to be.
“She deals with the ups and downs of the game and failure really well,” believes her father, “and I truly believe it is due to her faith. She knows softball is not the end-all because of her relationship with Christ. Rylee is able to compartmentalize all of the highs and lows in the game and she knows that whether she wins or loses, or is ranked #1 or goes unranked, it is all nothing compared to her relationship with Christ. In my opinion, this is how she stays so evenly keeled. This allows her to be humble and will keep her working hard to get better.”
Rylee’s grandmother, Debbie Holtorf, and her father helped found the original Christ Church of the Valley which has expanded to seven campuses throughout Arizona.
The sophomore volunteers to help on Saturdays when she can, spending an hour to teach the small children faith-based messages. She used to do pre-school volunteering and will move up to work with junior high students starting this spring.
“I like working with the little kids,” she states, “but I’m excited to work with older kids too. My faith has been important in helping me deal with obstacles and before every game I lead the team in prayer. It helps me remember that there is something bigger than softball.”
“I feel like God put me on the field as an example of his love and I can be an example of what it means to be a good teammate. When I’m struggling or my teammates are struggling, is it really important? Yes, I want to do the best I can in softball, but in the end, it doesn’t matter as much as it’s about helping others.”
Her mother says Rylee has always been cool under pressure and has an idea where that fortitude comes from… mostly.
“I was always laid back as a pitcher,” Ryanne says, “and Rylee has that calmness, too. It’s always been easy for her to deal with pressure. Plus, she’s really strong in her faith which has to be a part of it. I don’t know if because I’m so laid back or it’s her faith or a combination of both!”
It’s not unusual to see Rylee doing something, well, unsoftball-like on the field. Recently, after a good win for the Storm, she called over a team mom with a camera to have her snap some photos.
“I did a heel click,” she laughs, “like you see a leprechaun do! We had a good game and I was super excited. I had a bunch of teammates do some with me too.”
She admits that during the season, she and her Storm infielder teammate Bridget Donahey, a freshman committed to Northwestern, will look at each other and, to relieve the pressure, will suddenly break out some dance moves.
“We look at each other and give the other jazz hands,’ Rylee says without embarrassment. “We’re going to be crazy and get into it, it’s important to have fun and enjoy the moment, which keeps us motivated and helps us make plays.”
“Fun” is a word Rylee throws out frequently. And it’s a word that many use to describe her.
“She’s a fun girl to be around,” her mother agrees, “but she’s always locked into the game too. No matter what’s going on or where they are in the game, Rylee has that focus. You see girls who make an error or have a bat at-bat and they wear it all game. She can let it go--she’s always talking on the field and never stops talking which keeps her engaged. Rylee’s always going to be saying something!”
The athlete’s father thinks her first encounter with the Washington infield and how they played with energy, but also with a playful attitude influenced Rylee.
“She’s just naturally a fun-loving kid,” he believes, “and with her bubbly attitude, she will sit and talk to anyone. She bounces around and jokes around, but ever since she saw Taylor and the other Washington infielders, she wants to play like them and understands it’s OK to have fun when you’re playing the game.”
What’s fun for Rylee, not surprisingly, is winning.
However, she isn’t one to tout her abilities, but is more likely to praise her teammates. Her favorite highlight in her softball career, she finally explains after several sections of reflection, was more about her team than her.
“I would have to say that last summer with my team and how far we went in the Colorado Junior Power Pool and how we went on to play so well at PGF Nationals would be my favorite career highlight,” she finally states. “We had a lot of uncommitted players get seen and the committed girls got to have their college coaches further fall in love with them.”
She says her success has been due, in large part, to her supportive teammates.
“One thing that’s helped me want to get better is being surrounded by such good athletes and teammates who also want to get better. I’ve been fortunate to be surrounded by them as long as I have played in my career.”
“On the bench,” she says of her current teams, “we never stop cheering and on the field we jump up and down for each other and are excited for each other’s successes. I’m blessed to be around such fun people and not have to worry about jealousy or how others will feel when one of us succeeds. We all want it for each other.”
It’s not to say she can’t be serious. At a team party a week or so ago, Rylee, Bridget and fellow infielder Viviana Martinez, a freshman committed to Oregon, read a speech they collectively wrote for their head coach, Corey Mathis.
“We got up at the party and talked about Coach Corey for five minutes and let him know he was appreciated and that we don’t take anything for granted that he’s done for us.”
The comments were so powerful, that the Storm head coach got emotional when asked what that speech meant to him.
Ultimately, it comes down to enjoying life--thus the “fun” part--for Rylee as well as appreciating her time with her family and fastpitch softball and utilizing her faith to support and uplift others.
“One thing that’s super cool about my family,” she admits, “is that we have fun together and like to be together. We have fun while we’re getting better at the same time, be it my mom throwing BP to me and Raegan or us all going to support Reese in volleyball or Reid at a baseball game.”
Rylee trusts her feelings and once she committed to the Huskies, she’s always felt she made the right decision, because of a gut-feeling--a spiritual confirmation, if you will--as her faith confirmed her fastpitch future because of the fun she saw with the support of her family.
“Going into the recruiting process, I didn’t know much about Washington,” she says. “When I got there, I felt something different and one thing I noticed about Coach Tarr is she makes jokes and smiles. I think that’s super cool and important, the interaction between the coaches and players. It’s like, ‘I’ll coach you, but I’ll also be there for you.’”
--- Brentt Eads, Extra Inning Softball