Remembering former Tomcat standouts Darryle Kouns and Joe Conley

Two former Ashland Tomcat basketball and baseball standouts, one from the 1950s and another from the 1960s, passed away recently.

Col. (retired) Darryle “Sam” Kouns, who went on to be a star player at West Point Academy for two years and later served as an assistant coach under Bobby Knight, graduated from Ashland High School in 1954. He was part of a third-place finishing Tomcat basketball team in the Sweet Sixteen.

Kouns averaged 8.6 points per game on an Ashland team that included sharpshooter Bill Gray and Jerry Henderson, a duo who did most of the scoring. Kouns matched his career high of 19 points in the consolation win over Adair County in the Sweet Sixteen.

He was also a key player in one of the most unusual games of the year against Olive Hill. Coach Jack Fultz decided the Comets would hold the ball on the high-scoring Tomcats, who managed to hold on and win 25-17. Kouns and Bill Hopkins each scored seven in the unusual victory.

Kouns went to Georgia Tech out of high school and played his freshman season before gaining an appointment to West Point because of his athletic accomplishments. His strong play in basketball and baseball – and later as an assistant basketball coach – earned him a nomination to the Army Sports Hall of Fame.

Kouns played for the Black Knights in the 1957-58 and 1958-59 seasons, averaging 21.8 points and 5.4 rebounds per game. He scored 1,067 points in his West Point career that covered 49 games.

Darryle Kouns, left, with Mark Maynard in February 2022 at a throwback game at the old gymnasium on Lexington Avenue in Ashland.

His best work for the Army came on the battlefields. Kouns served 29 years in the U.S. Army and spent three tours in Vietnam: The first as a company commander of an engineer company. He participated in ground combat patrols, earning a Bronze Star, as well as completing enough aerial work to earn four Air Medals. In 1983, he took part in the invasion of Grenada.

He was selected for the Florida Veterans Hall of Fame Class of 2020. 

Kouns, who was an Elks Sports Day honoree in 1998, was in Ashland last February when a game was played in the Ashland high school gym on Lexington Avenue. Kouns died March 3, 2023. He was 86. His funeral will be Thursday at Steens Funeral Home in Ashland.

Conley was 1,000-point scorer in basketball, member of 3 baseball state champions

Joe Conley, 72, starred in basketball for the Tomcats from 1966-68, scoring 1,007 points in his three-year basketball career that included being a member of 16th Region championship team as a sophomore. He was a key figure on Ashland’s 1967 and 1968 teams that fell to strong Russell teams in the regional finals each year. Conley scored 29 against Russell in the 1968 regional final, a hard-fought 80-75 loss. He was honorable mention All-State in both his junior and senior seasons, teaming in the backcourt with Bobby Lynch.

Conley was also one of only four players on all three state championship baseball teams from 1966 to 1968. Conley made the All-State Tournament team as a senior. He was inducted into the CP-1 Hall of Fame in 2017.

Joe Conley, left, and Charlie Reliford at the CP-1 Hall of Fame ceremonies in 2015 when Reliford was inducted in the first class. Conley was inducted in 2017

He made a game-saving catch in left field during the championship game in 1968 against Southern. Bobby Lynch was pitching and he stepped off the mound and waved Conley back four or five steps. Lynch says it had to be divine intervention because “I never did that in any other game that I can remember.” The move proved prophetic as the next batter drilled a long flyball that Conley raced to catch, tracking it down while sno-coning the ball for the key out. Conley needed every one of those four extra steps to pull off the miraculous catch that helped give the Tomcats their third state championship in a row, a 1-0, 10 inning win over Southern.

Conley umpired minor league professional baseball and was an umpire in high school and a referee in basketball and volleyball. He loved being involved in sports of any kind from player to official.

Interim? Please. Tomcats don’t need to look far for next basketball head coach

Time to remove the “acting” or “interim” tag from Ryan Bonner’s name, even unofficially.  Ashland’s basketball coach has clearly proven worthy of being head coach, and without the adjectives that suggest he’s just filling in until somebody better can be found.

Or how about adding 16th Region champion in front of the coach title?

While there probably is a lot of red (maroon?) tape to be untangled that goes along with placing and removing interim tags, nobody deserves to be the fulltime boss of Tomcat basketball more than Bonner. There are rules – always, right? – that may mean Ashland cannot remove the tag until advertising the position for 30 days. Maybe they could post the position today, hire him (wink, wink), and announce it as soon as the posting period ends. I realize that’s not by the book, but this season hasn’t been either.

Bonner, a former Tomcat football and basketball star, has everything anybody should want in a basketball coach. He loves the game but, more importantly, he loves the players he’s coaching. If this season was an audition, cast Bonner in the starring role.

Tomcat “interim” coach Ryan Bonner (center holding daughter) and family after the 16th Region championship Tuesday in Morehead.

Did you watch him on the sidelines during the regional tournament? He was like a bear prowling up and down, pounding his big fists into the media table on good or bad plays, encouraging his players with growls, and then there were those massive bear hugs he handed out in the closing minutes of Ashland’s 73-51 demolition of Boyd County. Those spoke volumes as he lifted players off the ground and wrapped his big arms around them. It was genuine happiness, a joyful release after a season that could have gone sideways before it got started.

Instead, he won the 16th Regional championship in a season where most believed the Tomcats’ run of four in a row was over, especially after a generational trio of players had graduated and former head coach Jason Mays, the architect of that regional domination, was fired two weeks before the start of the season. There was so much confusion and angst surrounding the program. How could they ever recover?

Bonner did everything he was asked and more under the interim tag, including taking the Ashland Tomcats to their fifth consecutive regional championship on Tuesday night. If passion for the game and his players is a prerequisite for removing the interim tag, then take it away. Now.

Bonner was faced with more adversity than a first-year coach should ever have to endure. He was handed a boiling hot potato with no gloves. As an assistant coach with Mays, Bonner’s thorough scouting reports was proof  he understood the X’s and O’s. But there was no book (not yet anyway) on how to handle these unusual circumstances. He needed to be coach and psychologist. There is always the pressure to win at Ashland, but this wasn’t about winning and losing, not at first anyway. Bonner was tasked with consoling and rebuilding a locker room, of listening to the players go through a “grieving process” while building their trust. He needed them to believe in him, believe in the system and believe in each other.

A team with great maturity and resolve did just that. They found strength in each other internally, blocked out the noise and did what they do best – play their brand of never-give-up basketball.

Moving one seat over on the bench is only about 12 inches physically, but it can be a long journey mentally. Bonner was juggling that move from assistant to (interim?) head coach while caring for players in a unique situation and extending a winning culture that was well established by those who came before him. These players also had to prove to the community – and maybe themselves – that the beat would go on even after everything that had happened.

It turns out all that turmoil and noise became fuel for the Tomcats.

A highly competitive schedule awaited, further complicating the transition for coach and players. But Bonner persevered through it all, helped along by a tremendous support coaching staff and athletic director, and did the improbable. He did it with integrity and class.

Interim coaches are placeholders trying to keep the ship afloat until the next man comes along.

That’s not Ryan Bonner. He’s the captain of this Tomcat ship. Ashland needs to remove the tag (even unofficially) so he’s not introduced as the interim coach in Rupp Arena next week. He has earned being named head coach.

Unmatched legacy: Herb Conley embodies Tomcat spirit

Herb Conley grew up on the mean streets of South Ashland where he watched some of the great Tomcat teams of the 1950s growing up.

 Conley idolized Tomcat stars like Don and Ralph Clere, Jim Graham, Buffalo Bill Hopkins, Paul Reliford, Ace Bowman and Gilly Layman, to name a few. He broke onto the varsity roster as a sophomore in 1956 – at a time when sophomores never played for the varsity – and began a three-year career that was capped off by an undefeated 10-0-1 season in 1958. It would be 62 years before the next undefeated season in 2020.

Conley was an All-State player who signed with Kentucky and finished his career playing for legendary Roy Kidd at Eastern Kentucky. But he is best remembered as a motivational coach supreme, a man who almost willed his players into becoming great players in his image. Get tough was his calling card.

He came to Ashland with Jake Hallum as an assistant coach in 1966 and was part of the 1967 state championship team coaching staff before becoming the Tomcats’ head coach from 1968 to 1976, where he led Ashland to a state runner-up finish in 1973 and the Class 4A state-at-large championship in 1975 with the beloved JAWS team. Conley had a hard-nosed style of his own that translated into 70 Tomcat victories in nine seasons.

Ashland’s teams were respected throughout the state in the 1970s, He was selected as Kentucky’s Coach of the Year in 1975. The Tomcats were tough, just like their coach. They backed down to no one.

Conley retired from coaching after the 1976 season and became an administrator in the Ashland school system. He stepped away from coaching to raise his three sons with wife Janice, who he calls ‘‘my inspiration.’’ He did return to coaching in the 1990s for a short and highly successful stint at Symmes Valley High School outside of Ironton and built that program the same way he did Ashland.

Not surprisingly, he was a get-tough administrator as an assistant principal at the high school and the principal at Verity Middle School. You gave him maximum respect if you were a teacher or a student. It was the kind of discipline necessary to propel everyone to do their best. He had a master’s degree in discipline – ask anyone who ever played or worked with him or maybe was paddled by him. When he scrounged up his nose, the hair stood up on the back of your neck. Trouble was coming.

If Ashland had a Mount Rushmore, you better believe the first person carved out would be Herb Conley.

He played basketball and baseball, but his love was always football. Hard-nosed, grind-you-into-the-dirt football. Conley has been showered with deserved accolades including being an Elks Sports Day honoree, a CP-1 Hall of Famer, a Distinguished Tomcat and having a statue of his likeness placed in Putnam Stadium. He embodies Tomcat football more than any other individual and that’s why he was chosen to represent it at the place he loved to compete. The statute is in the perfect place as he overlooks the playing field in a familiar coaching pose.

Conley has played it, coached it, and admired it. He’s one of the names that keep the tradition going strong. Conley’s impact is felt throughout the generations. He was a fan, player, assistant coach, head coach, school administrator, parent and grandparent of players. Nobody can match that legacy, making him one of the most important figures in Tomcat history.

Beyond all that, he’s a good man, a friend to whoever needs one, an excellent father and a father figure, a loving husband to his late wife and certainly a Tomcat for the ages.

On Sunday he will be honored again before he moves to Lexington because of some ongoing health issues with mobility. Come by between 2 and 4 p.m. in the lobby of the Anderson gym on the Blazer campus and tell him thank you. Bring only your memories, not gifts. It is an opportunity for the people of Ashland who he has impacted – and that is a long, long list – to wish him well on the next journey.

Herb still pumps iron daily, but the wheels aren’t what they used to be. It takes a big man to understand when help is needed. There are few bigger or better than Herb Conley.

He hasn’t seen the last of Ashland. Herb promises to be back on Friday nights this fall to watch his beloved Tomcats.

Elks restarting Sports Day with George Stout as honoree

ASHLAND – The Ashland Elks will be bringing back Elks Sports Day this summer after a three-year hiatus with an honoree who has been part of the program since the beginning.

George Stout, who has been on the Sports Day committee for 44 years including 26 as the chairman, will be feted June 17 at the Ashland lodge.

Nobody has put more into the beloved Sports Day program than Stout, who has been an Elks member for 72 years.

“Once I got to reading his resume, I thought, ‘My goodness! How has he not already been honored?’ He’s done an awfully lot,” said Mike Powell, the chairman of Sports Day. “I think he’s the perfect honoree as we restart everything.”

Stout, 94, has led a remarkable life of serving and being involved in sports in a variety of ways. While he wasn’t an athlete – aside from throwing a wicked bowling ball – Stout has been involved with high school sports through doing basketball and football programs through the years. He also worked 50 years at the Ashland Daily Independent (he refuses to call it anything else).

His programs have included the Ashland Invitational Tournament, NEKC Conference Tournaments, Russell Invitational Tournaments, Boyd County Holiday Classic tournaments, Fairview football, the Elks Sports Day, Kentucky-Indiana All-Star Games and 16th Region basketball tournaments. He was also the game director for the Kentucky-Indiana All-Star Game from 1984-89 after serving on the Kentucky All-Star committee from 1979-1983.

He has been married to wife Jenny since 1960 and they have a daughter, Diane Anderson, two grandchildren and three great grandchildren.

As a nearly lifelong member of the Elks, Stout has been involved in the traditional Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners where he has delivered meals for decades.

Stout served as a trustee in the 1990s and was named Elk of the Year in 2011-2012. He was editor of the Elks bulletin in 1994-95. He is also a 73-year member of the Ashland Moose Lodge and a 53-year member of the American Legion Post 76. He served two years in the U.S. Army in 1950-51 and attended Ashland public schools. He currently serves as a board member of Sanitation District No. 2 of Boyd County.

Powell said the Elks wanted to restart the program after not having it since 2019 when Steve Towler was recognized. “I guess everybody was still coming out of COVID and they just didn’t feel like they could do it,” he said. “I’ve only been a member for about nine years but I’m glad to help them out with this if I can.”

George has asked me to speak for him at the banquet. It’s going to be a fun night.

Tickets will be on sale at the Elks Lodge, Sanitation District No. 2 and the Trophy House for $20. The reception starts at 6 p.m. and the event follows at 7 p.m.