In a year when COVID has taken so much from us, the Ashland Tomcat football team gave so much back.
They overcame every foe and a pandemic.
They are going back to the state championship game for the first time in thirty long years when one of the greatest backfields in Ashland history was simply the best team in Kentucky in 1990.
Now we have another team who will be compared with the great ones in Tomcat history.
Ashland had some outstanding teams over the past 30 years and they have supplied a lot of enjoyment to the fans who show up on Friday nights for what has become an community tradition. You go to the game even if you never know who won. That’s because most of the time it’s the Tomcats who do win. They have 21 consecutive victories in Putnam Stadium after Friday night.
But this year was different. Not many fans were allowed in Putnam Stadium and for those who dared to come, your temperature was taken and your mask in place before walking through the gates. The Tomcats, like everybody else, played in front of practically empty stadiums every week. When they traveled, they did so in multiple buses because social distancing was necessary. They wore masks all week, stayed in their “bubble,” stuck together and overcame opponents and a pandemic. Games were cancelled when an outbreak – or even one player – tested posted for COVID. And many wondered if this season was even going to finish.
And then it did. They persevered like no other team in Tomcat history has ever had to persevere. They did everything they could to stay healthy and clear of COVID. And now they’ve made history, with one more step to go next Saturday morning against Elizabethtown in the Class 3A state championship game.
My advice to Ashland’s players going into the semifinal game with Belfry on Friday night was “to be memorable.” You don’t want to go through all that they’ve been through with COVID and not be remembered. The c-word they want to be known for is champion.
The Tomcats took a step in that direction Friday with a 10-3 victory over Belfry in a game that would delight any defensive coach. It was Big Boy football on a big stage and the Tomcats are most certainly unforgettable now.
Every Ashland team that has won in the final four stage – and even the 88 team that lost in the semifinals – were dominant on defense. That has been the secret sauce.
–In 1967, Ashland shut out Belfry 42-0 in a wipeout.
–Ashland’s 1972 team defeated Bryan Station 21-6 in one of the hardest-hitting games anybody can ever remember.
–The 75 JAWS team went across the state to defeat Paducah Tilghman 13-7.
–The 88 Tomcats, a 17-point underdog, held Covington Catholic scoreless through regulation before losing 6-0 in overtime.
–And the 1990 team, despite some great running ability, needed a huge stop late in the game to subdue Bell County 19-14.
Defense wins championship. It’s true and it got these Tomcats to the championship game, too.
Seeing the joy on the faces of the players and parents on the field following the game Friday was something special. It reminded me of 1990 when everybody in Ashland seemingly stormed the field after the Tomcats clinched the first trip to the finals in 15 years.
The only difference Friday night? A lot more selfies – they weren’t a thing in 1990 – and the fans weren’t allowed to swarm the field. I was surprised they minded all-star PA man Chuck Rist’s announcement, but they sure did (maybe he has more clout than I thought?). They continued to cheer from the stands and there was a lot of them in Putnam Stadium – and the vast majority had their cheers muffled and glasses fogged with masks.
Ashland is going where only four other Tomcat teams have ever gone next Saturday morning at Kroger Field. They join the 1967, 1972, 1975 and 1990 teams as state finalists. The next step will be to join 1967 and 1990 as winners of the ultimate prize in Kentucky high school football.
But there’s more. These Tomcats can finish undefeated and that hasn’t happened since Herb Conley and Dick Fillmore were running up and down the field in 1958 for a 10-0-1 team.
Ashland won the Recreation Bowl in the last game of the season in ’58 and that was it as the season ended. The Kentucky High School Athletic Association started the playoff format the following year.
So it has been 62 years since the last unbeaten team and 78 years since the last undefeated AND untied team. That would be the 1942 Tomcats, who are regarded as a state champion in Ashland history anyway.
The heroes were so many on Friday night they could have handed out game balls by the dozens. I wouldn’t know where to begin.
Except for one person: Tony Love. The Tomcats’ head coach now joins some elite company beside Jake Hallum, Herb Conley and Vic Marsh. Now that’s a club worth admiring.
Congratulations Tomcats, one more to go.