33-0 Tomcats stuff of legends and banner-worthy

Ashland’s forever undefeated basketball team may be the most beloved in Tomcat history. They took on the very spirit of the community, lifted us when we needed it the most, gave us hope and encouragement and became a shining light during some of our darkest days.

It’s not only because of how they played basketball, which was almost poetic, but how these young men handled themselves.

Ashland’s starting five: Ethan Sellars, Ethan Hudson, Justin Bradley, Colin Porter and Cole Villers. (Kimberly Phillips photo)

Call Coach Jason Mays the maestro for what he has put together. He’s now deeply a part of the Tomcat legacy that he embraced from the moment he was hired.

Coach Jason Mays has won back-to-back regional titles. (Kimberly Phillips photo)

You can count the ways they were different. It was the players handing the ball back to the referee without attitude after being whistled for a suspect call, or a Tomcat extending a hand to an opponent who has crashed onto the floor on a hard play, or the team making a prayer circle after games. It was these young men using their volunteer time and basketball gifts to lift the less fortunate on Saturday mornings instead of choosing to sleep an extra couple of hours.

Colin Porter, the freshman point guard. (Kimberly Phillips photo)

That’s why they are beloved, that’s why a community was behind them in masses, and that’s why we are still talking about them and will be for years to come. They have etched their names in Tomcat lore.

There was a certain romanticism that has evolved with the way everything has apparently ended, with the Sweet 16 indefinitely suspended and with the Tomcats unable to complete the journey that they destined for themselves. But if this is the end, then they did complete that journey, and did it in perfect fashion.

Cole Villers, a sophomore, led the team in scoring. (Kimberly Phillips photo)

They have chased Tomcat ghosts since December, battled arch-rivals to the bitter end, even overcome in some games when they weren’t at their best. No one can take away the simple fact that they played 33 games and won every single one of them.

Ethan Hudson is one of three seniors. (Kimberly Phillips photo)

Here’s something else that played into the perfect season: The school board and administrators made a wise decision to allow a local company to Facebook telecast home games starting with the Ashland Invitational Tournament. While there is no replacing the unflappable voice of Dicky Martin over the radio in his unique style of delivering a game broadcast, the Facebook television broadcasts brought this Tomcat team to our living rooms in Ashland and throughout world, for that matter, over the last three months. It made everybody appreciate them more and served as a connection to this most magical of seasons. And when there was no Facebook broadcast, Dicky Martin always was, through every one of the 33 incredible games.

Ethan Sellars, only a sophomore, came up big in several games. (Kimberly Phillips photo)

We could call them state champions given that sparkling record but there’s no way to ever quantify that title officially. Fifteen other teams are feeling as badly as the Tomcats about not being able to play for the right to wear the crown. All these teams are forever linked to the dreadful coronavirus that brought the sports world – all the world, for that matter – to its knees.

Officials talked about trying to play the Sweet 16 later, when all of this virus clears up, but it doesn’t seem likely given the current scenario. Everybody is resigned to that by now.

Justin Bradley was the defensive ace.

If the last game for these Tomcats was the 16th Region championship game against Lewis County then – WOW! – what a way to go out. It was the best game they played all season, a poetry-in-motion performance that was one of the best in regional tournament history. It only adds to the legacy of this one-of-a-kind team.

Hunter Gillum provided a spark off the bench.

To that end, when teams achieve what these Tomcats did, celebration is a must. We can’t do it now while in the grips of the unforgiving virus, where a 3-on-3 game is considered too big of a crowd, but it needs to be done in the future when a sense of normalcy returns to our lives.

Nolan Phillips was a good rebounder and inside presence. (Kimberbly Phillips photo)

Ashland may never have another undefeated team in our lifetime – the last one was 92 years ago in 1928. The community celebrated that great team with 11,000 greeting them at the train station on 11th Street upon their return home. A parade through downtown proceeded with a celebration party at the end of it. They have a banner hanging in the gymnasium named after their coach.

When it comes time to celebrate, whenever that happens to come, let’s raise a banner in James A. Anderson Gymnasium for the 2020 Tomcats, who are forever that undefeated team that will be talked about for years and years to come.

It seems the least we could do.

Below is an artist rendition of the banner-raising by Joe Bevins, a Tomcat himself, who I asked to help me share the vision. He did a fabulous job, as I’m sure you’ll agree . Feel free to share.

Joe Bevins put together this cartoon of the Tomcat raising the banner.

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