Tomcats only semifinal loss came in epic 1988 performance

Ashland has a record of success when making it to the final four of the Kentucky high school football playoffs.

In state semifinal games, the Tomcats are 4-1 overall and 3-1 in Putnam Stadium since the playoffs were introduced by the Kentucky High School Athletic Association in 1959.

That one loss back in 1988 remains one of the greatest ever played in 83-year-old Putnam Stadium. Covington Catholic came to Ashland with a No. 1 ranking and 12-1 record. They left – make that escaped – with a 6-0 overtime victory and a healthy respect for Tomcat football.

Putnam Stadium was the site for four of Ashland’s five previous semifinal appearances.

Covington Catholic was a prohibitive 17-point favorite, a northern Kentucky powerhouse that came in with a slick passing attack that devoured opponents. Nobody gave the Tomcats much of a chance.

What happened on that cold November Friday night in 1988 was, well, chilling, the stuff of goosebumps and legends. The Tomcats battled the Colonels to a scoreless tie in regulation before dropping the tear-your-heart-out loss in overtime. While a haunting defeat for the 1988 Tomcats of coach Vic Marsh, it’s one of the classics of Putnam Stadium. It remains one the fans still talk about today.

Those Tomcats didn’t listen to the pre-game lunch-counter talk. These Tomcats may want to stay off social media this week.

The game with Covington Catholic in ’88 was supposed to be a mismatch. The Colonels were high-powered with quarterback Paul Hladon expected to make it look easy for the defending state champions.

If Ashland had any chance, it would be because of a battering-ram offense that had carried the Tomcats most of the season. It included running back Mike Johnson, who that season would become Ashland’s all-time leading rusher.

But on this night, it was a defense designed by assistant coaches Don McReynolds, Steve Salyers and David Arthur that befuddled the Colonels. It was a mix of zone looks and was predicated on a fierce pass rush. And it worked. An uncomfortable Hladon completed only 4 of 22 passes for 28 yards. It wasn’t all Hladon’s fault. Some of his throws were rushed but his receivers also dropped many passes after some jarring hits from Ashland’s secondary, namely Jason Hall and David Hicks, who had two interceptions and made an early statement with a thunderous hit on a receiver who dared to come over the middle on the first play.

By the end of the game, the receivers were hearing the footsteps of Hall and Hicks when a football was thrown their way.

Marsh’s coaching trademark was preparation, and it was the most prepared Tomcat team that I can ever remember. They were ready and they were motivated to win, not just play a good game against a team that frankly had superior talent. That kind of mental preparation was the only way the Tomcats were going to compete with Covington Catholic. They weren’t the more talented team, so they had to be the more physical team. Friday’s game with Belfry with be another test of toughness for these Tomcats.

Mark Maynard


Marsh’s coaching trademark was preparation, and it was the most prepared Tomcat team that I can ever remember. They were ready and they were motivated to win, not just play a good game against a team that frankly had superior talent.

That kind of mental preparation was the only way the Tomcats were going to compete with Covington Catholic. They weren’t the more talented team, so they had to be the more physical team. Friday’s game with Belfry with be another test of toughness for these Tomcats.

Hladon left the game knowing the Colonels were fortunate to go home with a victory. “I’ll tell you, Ashland Paul Blazer deserved to win,” he said.

The game may be the most exciting scoreless football ever played in Putnam Stadium.

Zeroes dominated the scoreboard but on the field there were blocked punts, blocked field goal tries, a touchdown called back by penalty, long runs, big losses, passes dropped, passes intercepted, fumbles, a goal-line stand, critical penalties, great decisions, bad decisions and gutsy decisions.

The only score came on Dan Ruh’s 10-yard run on a draw play in overtime.

Ashland had taken possession first in overtime and got to the four on two runs by Mike Johnson before Hicks, the quarterback, was dropped for a two-yard loss. That left it up to Charlie Johnson’s foot and Roger Werner blocked the sophomore’s 22-yard field goal try.

When Covington Catholic took possession for its overtime opportunity, Charlie Johnson chased Hladon back to the 23 and looked to have him corralled for a sack when the quarterback flung a pass out of bounds in the vicinity of a receiver.

On the next play, Ruh went up the middle, did some stutter steps to avoid the first wave of tacklers, cut left and went into the end zone.

Ruh, excited with the win, spiked the ball. The officials threw a flag, but unless it was going to be marked off on the kickoff of the state title game, it was meaningless.

Ashland’s players stood frozen on the field and it wasn’t because of the November chill. Their emotions were chilled. This roller-coaster ride of a game was over.

Ashland had its chances to win the game in regulation with only seconds remaining. Stopped at the Covington Catholic 12 with only nine seconds to play, the Tomcats called a timeout. Johnson tried a 27-yard field goal that was slightly wide left, but an illegal procedure penalty gave the Tomcats a five-yard setback but another try for the win, much to the protest of the Colonels’ sidelines. Again though, Johnson’s kick, this time from 34 yards out, was wide left and regulation ended 0-0.

Covington Catholic had a chance in the fourth quarter, but a goal-line stand by the Tomcats kept the shutout. The Colonels had a first-and-goal from the 3-yard line. The first two plays were one-yard gains and then fullback Chris Penn was stopped twice for no gain. Ashland’s fans in the end zone went wild. Everybody who was at this game was into the game. For the Tomcat fans who had invested so deeply, that’s what made losing so much tougher.

But the 1988 state semifinal game, even though a loss, will be forever remembered by those same fans.

Covington Catholic went on to repeat as state champions, defeating Paducah Tilghman 30-24 in overtime.

Two years later, the sophomores on this Ashland team, including Charlie Johnson, would win a 19-14 semifinal game with Bell County in Putnam Stadium on the way to the 1990 state championship.

Ask them today and they’ll proudly tell you about both games, each considered an epic in Ashland’s proud history.

One thought on “Tomcats only semifinal loss came in epic 1988 performance

  1. Thanks Mark it was the greatest game I was ever involved with,from the first to last play. The kids gave 100% on every play no questions asked TOMCATS ALL

    Like

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