No matter what else Ashland’s boys’ basketball team does over the next two or three weeks, they have carved out a place in Tomcat lore.
They have made us reach back into the Tomcats annals of history practically every week and reminded us of greatness past. Upon completing the perfect regular season at 28-0 on Thursday, they won the most games in a season since 1996 when those Tomcats notched 27 victories during a spectacular and surprising run to the state championship game before losing to Paintsville in an all-mountain final. We’ve compared them to 1961, the greatest passing team maybe of all time in Kentucky high school history, and in some ways we have linked them to 1928.
How hard is going undefeated in the regular season? Well, it hasn’t happened in 92 years in our region. The 1927-28 Tomcats didn’t lose a game, going 37-0 in an era when there was a jump ball after every basket (it really paid off to have a tall guy!).
It wasn’t like basketball as we know it now, with 3-pointers being largely a part of the landscape for this year’s Tomcats, but that didn’t make it easy to go 37-0. It was a game where buckets were scare and defense was fierce.
They didn’t have quite the attention (pressure?) that we put on these young men today. We’ve all talked about the unbeaten Tomcats since they won the Ashland Invitational Tournament in December. The countdowns came with every game. How many more could they win? Can you imagine what has been put on their shoulders?
I asked a friend who played on Ashland’s 1975 JAWS football team about the pressure of being on an undefeated team. JAWS went 14-0 before losing to St. Xavier 20-0 in the 4A championship game. Rick Sang told me, “We never thought we were going to lose. Not even against St. X after everything we were hearing about them.”
The same could be said for the 1966 undefeated Ashland state championship baseball team. They went 25-0 in the first of three consecutive state titles. Bill and Bob Lynch, the stalwart pitchers for those Tomcats, echoed Sang’s feelings of “we never thought we were going to lose.” And with those guys on the mound, they seldom ever did. They were 17-1 in 1965, losing in the state semifinals. That’s 42-1 over two years. Dominant pitching was the difference.
Losing wasn’t an option or part of the vocabulary. In my estimation, it’s even tougher in basketball (and baseball) than football to complete perfection. That statement bares truth when you see how many teams in Kentucky have completed undefeated seasons in football and the very few that have done it in basketball.
Johnson Central football did it this year, going 15-0 with an incredible team of well-coached athletes. Most of the teams on their schedule were no match.
Ashland’s 1958 football team is the last unbeaten in Tomcat history, going 10-0-1, with Herb Conley as one of the stars. He later was on the coaching staff of 1967’s 13-1 team and head coach of 1975 JAWS. Those teams were both built on brute force and simply overpowered most foes.
It’s different in basketball. Even though you may be the better team, the chances you could lose are greater. The intangibles – hot night for the opponent, cold night for you – can be the difference in winning or losing.
So the Tomcats going 28-0 – and 29-0 looks like a pretty sure thing come Monday vs. Rose Hill – is worth celebrating no matter what happens the rest of the way. Ashland could lose once and still have a shot to win the 16th Region or they could take a sparkling 30-0 record to Morehead in two weeks.
It’s interesting what could transpire and how the script has been flipped. Last year, Ashland was given little chance against Elliott County in the region semifinals but pulled off the improbable victory. Now, the Tomcats are back in the more familiar role of favorite and the target is clear. They will get everybody’s best shot.
Back in 1928, the Tomcats were 21-0 in the regular season and then swept through the district and region with 10 victories. They played a postseason regular-season game against Huntington High between the winning the state championship and before going to the national tournament and won again to take a 32-0 record into the national tournament in Chicago.
Ashland qualified because of being a state champion and the team the Tomcats beat in the state finals in four overtimes – Carr Creek – was invited too. They had nine players, all of them cousins, who played the regional tournament in cutoff khaki pants and t-shirts with numbers sewn on by hand. They had to practice outside because they didn’t have a real gym and they had to walk or ride horseback eight miles to catch a bus ride to games, all of which were played on the road.
To make it to Lexington for the state tournament, they had to walk the eight miles and take a bus another dozen miles to reach the nearest rail spur that was about 20 miles from Carr Creek.
Don Miller’s book, The Carr Creek Legacy, is a jewel. It talks about how after Carr Creek defeated Middlesboro in the regional finals in Richmond, fans collected money so the Creekers could have regulation uniforms. Nobody expected them to be around long, but they kept picking off supposed better teams and wound up in the finals against the Tomcats.
The state tournament was a bigger deal then than even now with the media. It was second only to the Kentucky Derby as it related to sports fans in the commonwealth. The newspapers moved stories from the tournament off the sports page and onto the front pages of the three-day tournament.
Neither Ashland nor Carr Creek were expected to be playing in the championship, but here they were. And they weren’t alone. A crowd of 4,000 packed the University of Kentucky Alumni Gymnasium, according to newspaper accounts. Play-by-play reports were sent by telegraph to the Kentucky Theater because so many more wanted to know how the game was going. Can you imagine that?
It was a low-scoring game, like most of that time, with Carr Creek leading 4-3 at halftime. Ashland led 8-6 after three quarters and Shelby Stamper’s free throw with a second to play tied the game at 9 after regulation. Neither team scored in the first three overtimes.
Gene Strother tipped in a basket for the Tomcats from a long jumper in the fourth overtime and Ellis Johnson hit a layup for a 13-9 lead. Carr Creek made it 13-11 and the subsequent jump ball went Ashland’s way. There was no 10-second counts or over-and-back rules, so the Tomcats were able to stall out the rest of the game, using the entire floor, with Johnson “putting on a dribbling show,” as John McGill, a former ADI sports editor, said in Miller’s book. McGill saw the game as a young boy.
An excerpt from the book read:
“With Johnson putting on a dribbling show, Ashland was able to freeze the ball until the end,” McGill said, describing his childhood memories. As Ashland fans swarmed to hoist their players in the air, hundreds of fans swarmed to the floor to lift the Creekers to their shoulders, too. Earl Ruby, a sportswriter for the Louisville Courier-Journal, was trying to type his story, and he could not because of the frenzy of the Carr Creek fans. He had to obtain shelter under the table to finish his report.”
By the way, Ashland’s girls won the state championship on the same day but little was said about it. The Kittens were something fabulous too with coach W.B. Jackson guiding them to four titles in the eight years the girls state tournament was held.
One more little fact: Ashland finished its perfect season Thursday night on the floor at James A. Anderson Gymnasium, named of course, for the Mr. Anderson who was the coach of those 1928 Tomcats.
Ashland took its spotless record to the national tournament in Chicago and won five more to complete the greatest season in Tomcat history at 37-0. The team returned home to an incredible celebration of 10,000 greeting them at the train station on 11th Street where they boarded firetrucks and rode down Winchester Avenue to 17th Street and celebrated perhaps the greatest moment in Ashland sports history.