Tomcats’ football in final four for sixth time

ASHLAND, Ky. – Welcome back to the Kentucky high school football final four, Ashland Tomcats, it’s been a while.

Ashland locked down its sixth trip to the state semifinals since the Kentucky High School Athletic Association instituted the playoff format in 1959 with a 42-0 victory over Fleming County in Putnam Stadium on Friday night.

The 2020 season joins 1990, 1988, 1975, 1972 and 1967 in the rare final four club.

It gets much tougher from here.

Defending Class 3A champion Belfry is next on the docket and Putnam Stadium will be the site for this showdown Friday night. Both the Tomcats’ final four runs that ended in state titles included wins over Belfry, including a 42-0 decision over the Pirates in the 1967 semifinals at Putnam Stadium. Here’s another good omen: Ashland’s path in 2020 could resemble 1967 with a win over Belfry in the semifinals and potential matchup with undefeated Elizabethtown in the championship game.

Al Vipperman, the coach of Belfry in 1967, said those oversized Tomcats were “a bunch of brutes” and they dominated the Pirates with 560 yards of offense. The following week Ashland spoiled E-Town’s undefeated season with a 19-14 victory at the old Fairgrounds in Louisville. It was the first state championship in the playoff era for Ashland.

The Tomcats returned to the final four in 1972 and defeated Bryan Station 21-6 in Putnam Stadium as Steve Layman ran for 103 yards and two touchdowns in a hard-hitting game that left both teams battered and bruised. Ashland carried some of the injuries into the championship game and Tates Creek won 16-7 in the last game ever played at UK’s Stoll Field. It was also one of the coldest games anybody could ever remember.

Ashland’s 1975 JAWS team had an historic semifinal game. The Tomcats became the first team in Kentucky to board an airplane and fly to an in-state venue for a game. The Tomcats flew a chartered flight to Paducah and defeated Paducah Tilghman 13-7 when Gary Thomas broke loose on an 85-yard touchdown run late in the game to erase a 7-6 deficit.

That year, the Tomcats were playing in Class AAAA – then the largest class in the state – and this game was called the State At-Large Championship. Back then, the state decided a champion and Jefferson County had its own tournament to decide a champion. Those winners met in a sort of Kentucky high school Super Bowl game.

St. Xavier, dressed in green and gold with 99 players on the roster, looked very much like the Green Bay Packers. St. Xavier survived an early blow when the Tomcats took the opening kickoff and marched inside the 5-yard line before missing a field goal. It was only 6-0 at the half before St. X pulled away for a 20-0 victory to hand the JAWS team their only defeat after 14 consecutive victories.

It would be 13 more years before Ashland made it back to the semifinals in 1988. That game resulted in one of the most heartbreaking losses in Tomcat history, a 6-0 overtime decision against heavily favored Covington Catholic in Putnam Stadium. The Colonels went on to win the Class AAA title that season, making it an even harder-to-swallow defeat.

Two years later, Ashland made another trip to the final four and the championship game. That would be the 1990 Tomcats, who defeated Bell County 19-14 in a memorable semifinal showdown that saw a big stop on a fourth-and-one late in the game lock down the win. That game materialized after Ashland defeated Belfry 35-20 on the road in the second round of the playoffs.

The Tomcats’ win over Bell County turned out to be the toughest of them all. Ashland ran over Lincoln County 35-13 in the championship game the next week in Louisville as Chris Hutt raced for 175 yards and three touchdowns and Charlie Johnson 126 yards and two TDs.

And until Friday night, that’s been it.

Ashland is 9-0 heading into the semifinals in this COVID-marred season where several games were cancelled. The last unbeaten Tomcat team was 1958 (10-0-1) and the last unbeaten and untied team was 1942 (10-0).

History awaits the Tomcats next week.

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