It’s more than fitting that Ashland chose to play West Carter in Tuesday’s Heritage Game at the old Alumni Gymnasium when the home of the Tomcats for 37 years will be recognized as a “Glory Road” site by the Kentucky Basketball Hall of Fame.
West Carter is a consolidation of Carter City and Olive Hill High Schools.
Jack Fultz coached the Comets of Olive Hill from 1951-1968 and dueled with some of the best basketball teams in Ashland history with many of those games in the Alumni gym.
If current Comets coach Jeremy Webb wanted to add more theatrics to the festivities, he could wear some flat shoes that pop when they are stomped on a gym floor. That’s how the intimidating Jack Fultz got the attention of his players – and sometimes the referees – by stomping so hard it sounded like firecrackers going off.
Fultz had a 7-20 record against the Tomcats while other Comet coaches wee a combined 2-29. He was a thorn in their side in the 1950s when Olive Hill won the 16th Region championship three times – 1955, 1956 and 1959. His ’59 Comets went to the state semifinals before injuries to both guards sent them to a disappointing defeat, one that stuck with Fultz to the end of his days.
Steve Gilmore, who was a star at Holy Family, remembered going to Irish games when they played the Comets. “He was an intimidating factor from the bench,” Gilmore said in a 2014 interview. “I can remember a couple of games, he had one of the loudest stomps I ever heard.
“To me, Jack was a purist as a coach. There are so many things you can do now. Jack’s strong suit was he knew kids. He demanded much, at least that’s what some of the old-timers who played for him say. They were intimidated by him. He was just trying to get the very best out of them.”
Fultz worked in the Carter County school system for 60 years and was highly respected in Ashland circles. They named him an honoree at the Elks Sports Day in 2014.
“I remember what a relentless coach he was,” said Holy Family great Fred Simpson. “His teams were always so well-prepared defensively. He had them playing defense.”
Talking to him years later, Fultz told me how much he respected Ashland’s basketball tradition and how going against coaches like George Conley and Bob Wright challenged him like nobody else. He loved how the Tomcat fans followed their teams and always expected to walk out of the gym happy with a victory.
In many ways, he said, they were a model for others to follow. And there was nobody he’d rather beat than the Tomcats. Fultz savored every win against them and could recall them in exact detail. Nobody told a better story than Fultz, who took a shine to me in his last years. We’d go to lunch once a week – he always paid and I always learned. I found you learn better from listening than talking.
Olive Hill defeated the Tomcats 58-56 in double overtime to win the 1955 regional title in Winchester.
In 1963, Olive Hill stunned Ashland 59-57 in the opening round of the regional tournament. The Tomcats had won the state title in ’61 and were runners-up in ’62. They also hadn’t lost to a region opponent in the 1959-60 season.
But perhaps the most memorable game he coached against Ashland was a loss in February 1954 in Alumni gym when the Comets held the ball. The final score was 25-19, a game that infuriated Tomcat fans who were used to getting it up and down the floor with a team that averaged 72.5 points per game behind the great Bill Gray and Jerry Henderson. But the Comets had a chance in the fourth quarter because of the unorthodox strategy that nobody had tried against them.
Fultz remembered H.V. Ellis, Ashland’s principal at the time, coming up to him after the game.
“He said ‘Jack, they won’t come out and watch that kind of ball,’’’ Fultz said. “I told him ‘I’m coaching to win.’ The next year, when we played them in December, you couldn’t get in that gym there were so many people there.”
Olive Hill won that one too, but they didn’t hold the ball. The Comets rolled to a 73-54 victory.
In the slowdown game, Fultz reasoned that was the only way he could possibly upset the Tomcats who went on to win the regional tournament. Ashland’s opponent in the championship game in 1954 was Carter City, the other part of the West Carter consolidation in 1971, with a 75-58 victory. The Tomcats went on to take third place in the Sweet Sixteen.
The homage to the past for the Tomcats on Tuesday will also serve to do the same for the Comets, making it the perfect matchup for the Heritage Game where the teams will be playing in throwback uniforms.
It should be a fun night but don’t look for anybody to hold the basketball.