ASHLAND, Ky. – When Joe Swartz ran onto the court before the 1962 Ashland Tomcats took on the 1971 Tomcats, he sent some good vibrations through the old Ashland High School gym with his famous cheer.
“When you’re up, you’re up,
when you’re down, you’re down;
when you’re up against the
Tomcats you’re upside down!”
The fans went crazy. That was all it took. This place was jacked-up. Their beloved 62 Tomcats are one of the forgotten teams even though they achieved more than almost any of them.
Their biggest problem? They came after the 61 Tomcats. It’s tough to follow the GOAT even if you still have the GOAT on the roster.
Despite 32 victories and a state runner-up finish, it’s never talked about as one of Ashland’s greatest teams. But they still had Larry Conley, maybe the best Tomcat of them all. Who else was instrumental in 68 wins, a state championship and state runnerup over two years?
The 71 Tomcats were another team that’s not spoken of much even though they won 26 and reached the Sweet 16 quarterfinals. It was a team of great balance, well-coached by the venerable Harold Cole. This was the last of his three 16th Region championships in a row.
So everybody had a lot to prove when the 62 Tomcats hosted the 71 Tomcats. It was easy to see during the pregame warmups. Nobody had seen such intensity before a tipoff. The place was absolutely electric with the 1971 pep band playing “The Horse” and everybody was on their feet. It was a special sight to see for these teams. The game was bigger than most people imagined and both sides thought they were going to win.
The coaches in the game, Bob Wright for the 62 Tomcats and Harold Cole for the 71 Tomcats, both did nothing but win. They were alike in some ways and very different in others. Their success was what was demanded in those days.
The idea of Tomcats vs. Tomcats wasn’t easy for everybody.
Joe Swartz did a double-take when he saw the opponents jersey had Ashland on the front. But the fans in the stands on either side sure knew their favorite Tomcats. But it didn’t matter. He’d already done his part.
Now it was time to play.
Maybe the 71 Tomcats were too pumped up as they struggled out of the gate. The 62 Tomcats raced ahead 18-7 with Conley scoring seven, the last coming on an offensive rebound that would be a sign of things to come.
Rebounding proved to be a big difference in this one. The 62 Tomcats crashed the boards hard with Conley pulling down 17 himself, including seven offensive.
“Larry can play anywhere on the floor and do it well,” Wright said. “I’ve never seen a more complete player or a better rebounder. He knows how the ball is coming off the rim.”
Conley said it would look up through the net to determine which way the ball was going. His instincts were frightening.
But if the 62 Tomcats thought it was over after building they 11-point lead, they thought wrong.
The 71 Tomcats were a team of great balance and it showed up again. They began fighting back but another surge from the 62 Tomcats pushed the lead to as much as 13 points at 32-19 when David Hall scored off a Fastbreak.
The 62 Tomcats settled for a 37-26 lead at the half.
“We couldn’t keep them off the boards,” Cole said. “I knew we needed to make some adjustments at half. I wasn’t sure what we were going to do with Conley. He was so active and they knew to get the ball to him. He was hard to handle.”
The 71 Tomcats went to a 1-3-1 and made sure they knew where Conley was at all times. Meanwhile, on offense, they began chipping away at the deficit. It was down to 49-43 when they went on a 12-1 run to take their biggest lead at 55-50.
“I’m telling you, I don’t know what happened,” said 62 Tomcat Jim McKenzie, who scored 16. “We were cruising along and then all of the sudden we’re down five. How did that happen?”
It was two minutes into the fourth quarter when the 71 Tomcats seemed to gain control of the game. Then the 62 Tomcats took a timeout and Joe Swartz made a rare second appearance with his famous cheer.
“When you’re up you’re up,
when you’re down you’re down;
when you’re up against the
Tomcats you’re upside down!”
It was like a bomb went off in that place.
McKenzie caught fire from the corners, making the 1-3-1 ineffective. When they went back to man-to-man, Conley began taking over again.
Before anybody knew it, the teams were dead even at 60 with 2:56 remaining.
Gerry Whitlow’s basket at the 36-second mark was the last score for the 71 Tomcats, who turned cold just like that.
Larry Fairchild’s drive had put the 62 Tomcats in front for good at 62-60 as they finished the game on a 9-2 run. Conley made five consecutive free throws after Whitlow’s basket cut the lead to 64-62.
Conley was the dominating factor with 27 points and 17 rebounds. The 62 Tomcats held a whopping 51-25 rebounding advantage, and that included 19 offensive rebounds.
“That 1-3-1 was giving us fits but Jim broke it open for us with those corner bombs,” Conley said. “I’m not sure we’d have won it without him getting hot.”
Whitlow had 12 points and three rebounds and Paul Hixson collected 11 points and six assists.
The last time anybody saw big Joe Swartz that night he had his arms around two cheerleaders leaving the gymnasium.
His 62 Tomcats had indeed turned things upside down, but everything was sunny-side-up for him.
Ashland’s 1971 team was 26-4 and were regional champion. They advanced to the quarterfinals of the Sweet 16 before losing 72-62 to Louisville Central. It was coach Harold Cole’s second-winningest team.
Ashland’s 1962 team finished 32-6, won the regional title and then surprisingly to everybody but them played their way into the championship game. They came close, falling 62-58 to heavily favored St. Xavier for what would have been a second consecutive state title.
1971 ASHLAND (62) – Hixson 4-7 3-4 11, Salyer 1-2 1-2 3, Lynch 4-11 1-2 9, Farrow 3-10 1-2 7, Whitlow 4-11 4-6 12, Kleykamp 0-1 0-0 0, Williams 2-7 0-0 4, Griffith 1-5 4-4 6, Dodd 2-2 0-0 4, Hall 2-3 2-2 6, Brown 0-2 0-0 0. FG: 23-61. FT: 16-22. Rebounds: 25 (Hixson 3, Salyer 2, Lynch 5, Farrow 5, Whitlow 3, Williams 3, Griffith 5, Dodd 1. Assists: 14 (Hixson 6, Salyer 1, Lynch 1, Kleykamp 3, Williams 2, Dodd 1. PF: 23. Turnovers: 12.
1962 ASHLAND (69) – Stewart 1-3 0-0 2, Johnson 2-8 4-5 8, Fairchild 3-8 0-0 6, McKenzie 6-14 4-4 16, Conley 9-18 9-12 27, Hall 2-5 0-2 4, Barrow 1-4 2-3 4, Turpin 0-1 0-2 0, Yancey 1-1 0-0 2, Wheeler 0-1 0-2 0. FG: 25-63. FT: 19-30. Rebounds: 51 (Stewart 2, Johnson 4, Fairchild 10, McKenzie 10, Conley 17, Hall 1, Barrow 3, Turpin 1, Yancey 1, Wheeler 2). Assists: 10 (Johnson 4, Fairchild 2, McKeiznie 1, Conley 3). PF: 21. Turnovers: 21.
1971 ASHLAND 13 13 21 15 – 62
1962 ASHLAND 20 17 13 19 – 69