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WHERE ARE THEY NOW?: DENNY HOLT : GOING AGAINST THE FLOW : Former Monroe Baseball Coach Called for a Change Nine Years Ago and Took Off for Hawaii to Catch a New Life Style

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Occasionally a twinge of nostalgia causes Denny Holt to grab a twig, toss up a pebble and take a mighty swing. He could be hitting fungoes at Dodger Stadium, readying his Monroe High team for another go at a City Section championship.

“Usually I miss the pebble,” Holt says without a trace of regret.

Some things he never misses. Freeway traffic. Smog. School district administrators. All that he endured for more than two decades in the San Fernando Valley.

“Now I go the whole day without choking to death,” he says.

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Most people imagine dropping out of the rat race, moving to a tropical island and hanging loose the rest of their days. But the dream is fleeting. The alarm rings and it’s back to the grind.

Denny Holt, 54, made it happen. He called the hit-and-run and executed it perfectly.

In 1981, after Holt had spent 21 years as a no-nonsense coach with a hard-earned, hard-nosed reputation, he and his wife, Jackie, left their jobs with the Los Angeles Unified School District and took off for the easy life in Hilo, Hawaii.

“I quit the system,” he says.

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Holt was an unlikely dropout. Through the rebellious 1960s and ‘70s, in fact, he was a symbol of the Establishment, an ex-GI with a crew cut who expected strict obedience from his players.

“I didn’t tolerate much foolishness,” he recalls. “In fact, I didn’t tolerate any.”

His teams reflected his approach, and Holt led Monroe to the City final five times, winning the championship in 1971 and 1974. Doug DeCinces, who played at Monroe from 1967-69 and went on to a 15-year major league career, credits Holt with developing his work ethic.

“He always carried that dedication to the game, and that had a great impact on me,” DeCinces says. “Every morning at 9:15, we had to pick up a sheet that detailed that day’s practice. It was broken down to the minute.”

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At one practice, an errant throw blind-sided Holt, opening a three-inch cut in his head and rendering him unconscious.

“It hit me like a sledgehammer,” he recalls. The players gathered around their fallen coach. After a few minutes, Holt came to. He gazed up at the players and said, “What the hell are you guys doing? Get on the field and start working.”

Holt, a leader among area coaches, was as tenacious off the field. He badgered the school board into allowing Monroe to start an Easter tournament. He spearheaded the development of a winter league and helped get the regular league season increased from 10 to 15 games.

“Denny Holt wanted to upgrade Valley baseball and he was willing to put in the time,” recalls San Fernando Coach Steve Marden, who considers Holt a mentor.

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Darryl Stroh, the coach at Granada Hills, and Bob Lofrano, the former Chatsworth coach who now is co-coach at Pierce College, also patterned their programs after Holt’s.

He was a fixture, somebody who always could be counted upon to stand up for Valley baseball.

“Denny was the epitome of a great high school coach,” recalls Bob Hiegert, the Cal State Northridge athletic director who coached the Matador baseball team from 1967-84. “He was a very good role model and an extremely hard worker.”

Then, poof, Holt bolted. It seemed as far out of character as Kevin Mitchell laying down a bunt. Was it burnout?

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“I hate that term but maybe it’s appropriate. I just walked away from it,” he says. “I reached a wall.”

There is nothing but wide-open spaces and clean air these days. Life on the sparsely populated “Big Island” has rejuvenated Holt. He works full time in the construction business and serves on the island planning commission.

“There’s no way I’m sitting back in a rocking chair,” he says. “There are plenty of things to keep me busy.”

Baseball, however, is not one of them. Holt swears he has not been to a game since he moved. His only involvement in athletics is officiating high school football games.

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Yet he has vivid recall of Monroe games that occurred more than 20 years ago. Monroe opened in the fall of 1958 and its first baseball team, composed of underclassmen and coached by a 23-year-old Holt, was 0-16.

The coach was drafted into the Army that summer and returned to Monroe for the 1962 season. The team wasn’t much better. “We were a miserable outfit,” Holt recalls.

Monroe quickly improved, however, and by 1966 was playing for the City championship. In 1969, the Vikings played in the first final held at Dodger Stadium, although they lost to Birmingham.

Two years later came Holt’s finest moment, a victory over Fremont for a championship that capped a 19-0 season. Monroe’s winning streak was extended to 34 the following season.

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The Vikings won the title again in 1974 and advanced to the final in 1976, losing to Granada Hills. Holt’s program was as strong as any in the City.

“As the years went on, scouts and college coaches came to realize that a player from Monroe was prepared very well for the next level,” Hiegert says.

Holt took a sabbatical during the 1978-79 school year. He and Jackie, a counselor at Chatsworth High who was born and raised in Hawaii, spent the year in her home state.

On the plane flight back to Los Angeles, Holt turned to his wife and raised a question. “Why is it that we look so forward to Hawaii and dread returning to L.A.?” he asked.

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Jackie replied, “What are you telling me?”

Denny’s answer came two years later when he handed Monroe administrators his resignation. He and Jackie return to the mainland every so often to visit their son, James, an aerospace engineer. Then it’s back to their little slice of paradise.

Certainly, there are no regrets, as Holt made clear this week while watching the sun set on a soft summer evening.

“In the past hour, not a single car has gone by. My dog is not barking. My door isn’t locked,” he said. “And the birds will sing in the morning.”

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