It was an emotional day at Campbell County High School after classes Wednesday.
With the senior class having graduated and sports seasons ending last weekend, what was left of the student population had mostly vanished from school grounds by the time 4 p.m. rolled around.
While basketball season is months in the rearview mirror, the Camels gathered one last time to honor one of Wyoming’s most prolific and successful high school basketball coach in state history.
Mitch Holst, who coached his 21st season for the Camel girls basketball team this school year, stood before a crowd of friends, coworkers, coaches and former players. Overcome by emotion, Holst delivered one last speech as the head coach of the CCHS girls program.
“They never do tell you what to say at these things. This just feels right,” Holst said. “God just opened a door up at the right time.”
Holst announced his resignation as head coach of the Camel girls basketball program. Instead of retiring, he’ll transition to the boys program as the JV coach after former coach Cameron Anderson stepped down.
“He was the first guy I asked,” said Bubba Hladky, head coach of the Camel boys program. “You can’t get a date to prom if you don’t ask.”
The decision to coach boys next season was all about timing. Holst started as a boys coach in 1987 before joining the Campbell County staff as a girls assistant coach 27 years ago.
Holst took over as head coach in 2001. The Camels won state titles in each of his first four seasons (2001-04) where Campbell County posted a combined record of 90-15, according to wyoming-basketball.com.
The Camels would go on to win seven more state championships under Holst in 2006, 2009, 2011, 2013, 2015-16 and 2018. In 2020, CCHS didn’t qualify for the state tournament for the first time in Holst’s career.
Holst estimates he’s seen 100 seniors graduate from his program. Of those players, at least 50 have gone on to play at least one year of college basketball.
While half of his players went on to play college ball, Holst was just as happy as they were when the opportunity arose. When recent CCHS graduate Liv Castellanos committed to Chadron State College in Nebraska, Holst was all smiles.
“It’s always a relief to see a player like her get rewarded for her efforts,” Holst said about her commitment.
Sierra Toms, 26, was a member of both the 2011 and 2013 state championship teams. Toms, who now lives in Rapid City, South Dakota, left work early Wednesday afternoon to join the celebration for her former coach.
“I just wanted him to see and know the impact he’s had not only just on my life, but all the girls that have played for him,” Toms said. “I don’t think you have a paper long enough to let me tell you all my favorite parts about playing for Holst.”
Timing is everything
There was never going to be a perfect time for Holst to step down as the head coach. Every year he’d find new reasons to want to give it one more year and see out one more graduating class.
But after this season, Holst just felt different.
“I’ve been praying for years just wondering, ‘When does this end?’” Holst said. “What’s going to be the exit and what’s going to be the end game? When the split happened (with Thunder Basin), I just didn’t want to bail, but two and three years after I just started thinking, is it time to go?”
The answer to the question came when the JV boys coaching position opened up. Holst, 59, is ready to try something new.
“I think the thing that really helped me to decide on leaving the girls side was that there’s never a good time,” Holst said.
Two current players at Campbell County walked into the common area as Holst was giving his speech. Raimi Hladky and Millie Riss, both sophomores, were immediately noticed by the veteran coach.
“Thinking about those guys that I barely got to coach, honestly, them walking in right now triggers another big reason why I feel like I’m doing what I need to,” Holst said while pointing at the sophomores. “If I had to coach those two for another year, I’d end up staying with them for their senior year. I’d never want to leave them.
“I’m just rambling. Nobody wants to hear this.”
The coach was nervous, but understandably so. After all, it was a surprise party and he didn’t know about it until he walked in.
“I’m embarrassed,” Holst said. “This isn’t for me, is it?”
While the 45-minute celebration brought on more laughs than tears, the raw emotions showed just how much of an impact Holst made on anyone who came in contact with him throughout his career.
Toms, who went on to play college basketball at Sheridan College and Black Hills State University, gives Holst all the credit for pushing to her to want to play the sport at a higher level.
“All the jokes and funny memories aside, I learned so much about life and what it is to be a good person, a good teammate, a good leader and just a good coworker,” Toms said. “I learned that when things are tough you don’t just get to give up and you don’t just get to stop. You have people relying on you to pull your weight and the end result is often worth it.”
Winning wasn’t everything for Holst, but he sure hated losing. In his 21 years, the Camels’ record was 429-132 (.765 winning percentage).
“I just feel fortunate as heck,” Hladky said about having an experienced coach like Holst join his boys program. “I was somewhat shocked, but the timing was right for him and the timing was right for me and I know he’s going to do great.”
Before the crowd was able to dive into the cake with “I should have been a farmer” spelled out in frosting, Holst had a final wave of nostalgia when it came time to reflect on his career in girls basketball.
“The last thing that comes to mind about what made this job special,” Holst said, pausing to stifle some tears. “It’s the girls. If you told me when I started out as a head boys coach in 1987 when I was 25 that I was going to be a girls coach for 27 years, I would have flipped out.
“But I learned fast. Those girls are going to run through walls for you and they will absolutely compete.”
Holst will still be on the bench, but he’ll have a different view as a JV coach. And for the first time in more than two decades, the Camel girls basketball team will have a new coach on its bench next season.
Candidates to replace Holst have not been officially announced, CCHS Activities Director Zach Schmidt said.