LEXINGTON, Ky. – Billy Ray Jennings, the point guard on one of Ashland’s greatest teams in the 1950s, died August 14.
Jennings, 86, was a dynamo with the basketball on the 1952-53 Tomcat team that went 28-4 and carried a No. 1 state ranking into the Sweet Sixteen before being stunned by Paducah Tilghman, 46-44, in the opening round.
Jennings played on the same team as Tomcat greats Earl “Brother” Adkins, Bob Emrick and Jerry Henderson. He was an all-district, all-region and honorable mention All-State selection as a senior.
Playing for coach George Conley, Jennings was the playmaker and helped set up Adkins for a season where he scored 20.9 points per game. Emrick averaged 14.5 and Jennings followed at 11.3. from Jennings, who scored a team-high 23 in a record-smashing 112-49 victory over Vanceburg in the 16th Region championship game.
The Tomcats were big favorites in the Sweet Sixteen opener, but Paducah slowed the pace and pulled off the upset. Jennings scored 10 in that loss. Ashland went into the state tournament having won 16 of 17 games. They defeated then No. 1 Inez, 70-55, and No. 9 Newport and No. 10 Clark County. The losses were to Inez, then fifth ranked, 77-71, Flaget 59-58 in the Louisville Invitational Tournament and Hindman 57-54.
Billy Ray’s mother, Mildred was the official basketball scorekeeper at the table for Tomcat games for years, sitting alongside Ernie Chattin, the timer.
The 1953 team is regarded by many as one of best in Tomcat history. Jim Host, who was a manager on team and helped with practices for Coach Conley, has long said it is the most talented team ever assembled at Ashland. Adkins went on to play at the University of Kentucky and Emrick and Henderson earned scholarships to Florida.
Jennings played basketball at Ohio Wesleyan but he is best known as a Methodist pastor. He became a Christian and felt a calling to ministry at a revival at his home church, Ashland First Methodist.
He changed his name to Bill in college and seminary at Duke, but his hometown always knew him as Billy Ray or “Squirt.” Jennings was married to Connie Lewis in 1958 and during their honeymoon night he preached at a revival service. Jennings was an ordained Methodist pastor in the Kentucky Conference and served several congregations including as an associate at his home church, First Methodist.
He suffered a stroke in July and that led to his health downfall and eventual death.
A service honoring Jennings will take place at noon on Aug. 28 at Southern Hills United Methodist with visitation from 10 a.m. to noon at the church.