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A title rematch 67 years in the making?

The 1952-53 Ashland Tomcats defeated Vanceburg for the 16th Region title. Front row: Coach George Conley, Chris Kitchen, Darrye Kouns, Mike Jones, Bill Gray, Bill Jenkins and Melvin Kouns (manager). Back row: Jerry Henderson, Earl Adkins, Bob Emrick, Lee Marshall, John Woods and Jim Bailey.

Lewis County will be playing for the 16th Region championship for the second time in school history against undefeated Ashland.

But, really, it’s the third time and the second one against the Tomcats.

Back in 1953, when Lewis County High School was called Vanceburg High School, they met the mighty No. 1 ranked Ashland Tomcats in the championship game.

It didn’t go well for Vanceburg as the Tomcats proceeded to record a 112-49 victory that is the most points ever scored in a regional championship game and most lopsided win in the final game.

A lot of teams lost to those Tomcats, who went to the State Tournament with a sparkling 28-3 record and designs on bringing the state championship back to Ashland. Paducah had other ideas, slowing the game down and stunning the Tomcats 46-44 in the first round at Memorial Coliseum in Lexington.

Nobody saw that one coming but that’s the beauty of the Sweet Sixteen.

Nobody ever knows for sure.

The Tomcats were led by their demanding coach, George Conley, who made sure he got every ounce of effort out of every player. It was a well-conditioned and extremely talented team. He’d assembled a roster the likes of which Ashland hadn’t seen in a long time. There was talent at every starting position and scoring power off the bench too.

They were even strong at manager – Jim Host filled that role and he was one of the best athletes in the school. Host, a baseball star pitcher for the Tomcats who signed a professional minor league contract with the Chicago White Sox, made his own way in life as one of the top sports communication executives ever in the field.

Host loves his Kentucky home here in Ashland and has often said the 1953 team was the best in Tomcat history – and makes no apologies about it. Others argue the undefeated 1928 state and national champions and the 1961 champions trump ’53 because of how those seasons finished.

Maybe those are arguments for another day and maybe this undefeated Tomcat team gets put in the conversation by the end of next week if they run the table.

Unlikely you say? How likely was 32-0?

This much is true. Ashland’s 1953 team is regarded as one of the most talented in school history with the likes of Earl “Brother” Adkins, who led the All-State voting and considered the Mr. Basketball of his day. He is one of the most decorated players in Tomcat history – playing in the Kentucky-West Virginia, North-South and Kentucky-Indiana all-star games once the season finished – and Adolph Rupp put him on his must-have list. He went to UK but was in Rupp’s doghouse because Brother brought his wife with him. The Baron wanted his players married to basketball.

Brother scored 35 against Vanceburg in that championship game. But there was more, much more. Bob Emrick and Jerry Henderson, Billy Ray “Squirt” Jennings, Lee Marshall, Bill Gray and John Woods were part of a team that didn’t lack for star power.

Ashland’s other losses that season came to Louisville Flaget 59-58 in the finals of the Louisville Invitational Tournament – the preeminent tournament of the day, and surprising home losses to Inez 77-71 and Hindman 57-54.

Back in the 1950s, the Tomcats, Clark County and Olive Hill were the usual suspects when it came to being 16th Region powerhouses and top contenders. The Tomcats had to dispatch 10th-ranked Clark County 51-45 in overtime during the opening round of the regional tournament on the Cardinals home floor in Winchester. Then they clobbered Olive Hill 74-47 in the semifinals before dismantling Vanceburg in the championship.

It was no mercy and no running clock as Ashland flexed its considerable muscle, defeating Vanceburg and then cutting down the nets on rival Clark County’s court, which had to be satisfying. The Cardinals were ranked No. 1 the previous season and edged the Tomcats 59-58 in the regional championship game played at the Ashland Armory. So revenge was in mind during that semifinal matchup.

The Vanceburg-Ashland game had another twist. The coach for Vanceburg that season was Bob Wright, who eight years later would guide the Tomcats to the ’61 state championship and a 36-1 season.

Brother Adkins played for Kentucky and Emrick and Henderson went to Florida.

Vanceburg was part of the 16th Region between 1943 and 1959 before being moved to the 10th Region. Vanceburg became Lewis County in 1962 and moved back to the 16th Region in 1972.

So the Lewis County-Ashland matchup for the regional championship has a little more history and a few links to it than some may have realized.

By Mark Maynard

Managing editor of Kentucky Today, the digital newspaper of the Kentucky Baptist Convention, since July 2017. Worked 42 years for The Daily Independent in Ashland, Kentucky, the last 12 as managing editor and editor and the previous 30 before that in the sports department, including 17 years as sports editor. I have been in the business since 1975 with more than 75 writing awards from the Kentucky Press Association. I have also have written eight books, used to run fast but now look more like I have a piano on my back. President of Amy For Africa, a faith-based Christian ministry serving Uganda. I'm a husband to Beth and father to Stephen and Sally, grandfather to Brooks and human to Opie!

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