2001 Tomcats overcome 1970 Tomcats despite spirited motivation

ASHLAND, Ky. – Mark Surgalski and Arliss Beach are among the best tandems in Ashland basketball history. The Tomcat won consecutive 16th Region championships with those two as the centerpiece.

The 2001 Tomcats, which was the first of those championship seasons, turned the clock back 31 years to meet the 1970 Tomcats for a simulation battle that looked like a dandy on paper.

But after a tightly played first quarter, the 2001 Tomcats began making it look like the rout was on. Consecutive baskets from Zack Davis, Beach and Surgalski grew a 43-34 advantage to 49-34 at intermission.

“We did this in our last simulation game and couldn’t hold on,” remembered 2001 (and 2002) coach Mike Flynn of the 2002 Tomcats lost to the 1980 Tomcats. “I reminded the ones that played in the 2002 season of that game. Some of them looked at me kind of funny.”

1970 classmates Donna Childers and Johnny Mullins.

The atmosphere in Anderson gymnasium was a little different, too. The guys had hair down to their shoulders and the girls were wearing mini-skirts. The band warmed up to “The H-O-R-S-E” and everybody was talking about how good the Cincinnati Reds would be and wondered if they would bring up Don Gullett to pitch?

They overheard some of the 1970 players talking about cruising the ‘Grass and finally figured out they meant the Bluegrass Grill. (Sure they did).

“I love the Twinburger and onion rings,” Surgalski said.

“Ham sandwich and strawberry pie for me,” Beach said.

Uh, let’s get back to basketball. The 1970 Tomcats were the second of three consecutive regional championships under Harold Cole. His teams were good, fundamentally some of the best in the state every year. They also played a brand of basketball that the fans enjoyed.

Cole knew his basketball and he came along at a time when Ashland was a gold mine of talent.

There was a lot to like about this team, including Johnny Mullins, who is generally regarded as one of the best athletes in Tomcat history. He was a star in basketball and baseball and would have been in football as well if he played.

“We were well aware of how good Johnny Mullins was,” Flynn said. “But that doesn’t mean we could stop him.”

Mullins was on his game for the 70 Tomcats, but he was going to need a few more teammates to get involved if they were going to mount a comeback against the 2001 Tomcats.

He had some help in that department but it wasn’t from any of the coaches or players. It came from a current and future super fan. Donna Childers was a senior in 1970 and she was starting a lifelong love affair with the Ashland Tomcats.

The 1970 Tomcats were her favorites, but she wasn’t going to cut them any slack when it came to how they were playing on this night.

“You better get your heads out of your you-know-where before they embarrass you!” she yelled at them as they came back out of the locker room after halftime. “Surgalski and Beach are making every one of you look bad. I’ll cheer for these boys later but not tonight. COME ON!! START PLAYING LIKE YOU CAN!!! What am I going to tell my 70’s class girls at our future reunions lunches if you fool around and lose this game? GET WITH IT!”

Even Cole was taken aback by her spirited halftime speech. “Best I’ve heard,” he said. “Most of those guys were more afraid of her than me. And she scared me to death.”

With that “encouragement” to build on, the 70 Tomcats came out firing and started scratching away at the 15-point deficit. They had it down to seven, then four, then one after Dale Bowling was fouled on a 3-pointer and swished all three free throws to make it 57-56 late in the third quarter.

“We fought back,” Cole said. “It took a lot out of us to get there, but we made it.”

Back-to-back baskets from Surgalski and Adam Howard put the 2001 Tomcats in front 63-58 entering the fourth quarter. That’s when the game began to get extremely physical, with bodies being knocked to the floor on almost every trip.

Fans were getting rowdy in the stands, too, with dueling cheers from one side of the gym to the other. Guess who was leading them for the 1970 Tomcats?

“Well, I was going to do what I needed to do to get them going,” Donna Childers said. “Come on Johnny! Get on the floor after those loose balls!”

Surgalski, who led all scorers with 27 points, picked up his fourth foul and was relegated to the bench at the six-minute mark of the fourth quarter. When Beach, who scored 22, rolled his ankle a minute later, it looked like another collapse was coming.

“It’s next man up for us but, I’ve gotta admit, that was a scary time,” Flynn said.

With the 2001 Tomcat tandem sidelined, the game tightened up even more. Jeremy Howell, who had picked up his game with Surgalski and Beach out, scored to make it 67-64 with four minutes to play. However, the 1970 Tomcats scored five in a row with Mullins muscling one in for a 69-67 lead. It was the first time they had been ahead since the first quarter.

“We climbed the mountain,” said Mullins, who scored 24.

With only 35 seconds remaining in regulation, Beach came back into the game with a heavily taped ankle. Surgalski had returned at about the three-minute mark. Flynn set up last-second strategy. A simple give-and-go sprung Beach, who drove to the basket and scored at the buzzer to tie it at 69 and force overtime.

It was like the roof was coming off Anderson gym when Beach scored. The momentum had clearly swung to the 2001 Tomcats.

The drama quickly disappeared from the game when the extra period started. The 1970 Tomcats were exhausted and the 2001 Tomcats outscored them 11-0 with Beach and Howell combining for all the points to finish off the 80-69 overtime victory.

Howell had 13 points and six assists to complement Surgalski and Beach, who had combined for 49.

“Give Doc (A.J.) Stadhlmeyer credit for this one,” Flynn said. “He got Arliss in good enough shape to get back in the game. We don’t win this one with Arliss, and Doc. This was a great win over a very good team. We’re proud to take this one.”

“We were out of gas,” Cole said of the overtime. “We made a great comeback but the shots wouldn’t fall in the extra period. Hey, what happened to that young lady? You think she’s going to be OK? We hated letting her down.”

Donna Childers and her brother Doug were the last 1970 fans to leave the gym. They walked out with Dicky Martin and Dirk Payne, broadcasters for the 2001 Tomcats. Everybody was laughing and smiling. Even Donna, who said she still loves her 70 Tomcats but she loves the others, too.

“Once a Tomcat, always a Tomcat,” she said. “It’s good to have the four D’s together again.”

And with that, as they walked arm in arm out of Anderson gym, another special simulation moment had happened.

Real life

Ashland’s 1970 team finished 21-8 and captured the 16th Region championship with a win over Olive Hill. Allen County eliminated the Tomcats 46-43 in the Sweet 16.

Ashland’s 2001 team snapped a five-year Sweet 16 skid by defeating Rowan County in the 16th Region final. The Tomcats reached the Sweet 16 quarterfinals where they fell to North Hardin 50-45.

 2001 ASHLAND (80) – Davis 3-4 0-0 6, Howell 4-9 5019 13, Johnson 1-1 0-0 2, Surgalski 11-18 5-6 27, Beach 9-15 4-5 22, Hendrickson 1-3 0-0 2, Cook 2-2 0-1 4, Howard 1-2 0-0 2, Salyer 0-0 2-2 2. FG: 32-54. FT: 16-24. 3FG: 0-6 (Beach 0-3, Howell 0-3). Rebounds: 28 (Davis 2, Howell 4, Johnson 3, Surgalski 10, Beach 5, Cook 2, Howard 3). Assists: 19 (Davis 3, Howell 6, Surgalski 3, Beach 5, Hendrickson 1, Cook 1). PF: 15. Turnovers: 12.

1970 ASHLAND (69) – Cooksey 4-5 4-7 12, Lynch 4-10 0-0 8, Mullins 11-16 2-3 24, Bowling 3-6 3-4 9, Addington 3-8 1-2 7, Clark 0-3 0-0 0, Whitlow 1-3 0-1 2, Hixson 3-4 1-1 7. FG: 29-55. FT: 11-17. 3FG: 2-5 (Hixson 1-2, Mullins 1-2, Clark 0-1). Rebounds 23 (Cooksey 4, Mullins 4, Bowling 5, Addington 4, Clark 2, Whitlow 1, Lynch 3). Assists: 14 (Cooksey 4, Lynch 3, Bowling 2, Addington 1, Clark 3, Whitlow 1). PF: 20. Turnovers: 14.

2001 ASHLAND      23      26         14         6        11       –        80

1970 ASHLAND      21       13         24         11       0        –        69





Origin of ‘The Tomcat Voice’ wrapped up in 1960 vs. 1976 matchup

ASHLAND, Ky. – Bob Wright and Paul Patterson, two of the greatest coaches in Ashland Tomcat basketball history, collected 16th Region championships in their first seasons as head coaches at Ashland and their best seasons were in the second seasons.

Wright started coaching the Tomcats in 1960 and Patterson’s first season was 1976. The each put their own stamp on the program with teams that still today are considered among the best in Ashland history.

It seemed fitting to have their first teams meet in Anderson gym in a simulated battle for the ages.

Dicky Martin had fire in his belly from the start.

But the night ended up being remembered for another reason: It is when the legend that is Dicky Martin was born.

The 44-year “Voice of the Tomcats” was doing his first full play-by-play broadcast and he was excited. His dad was serving as his color man and Dirk Payne did the postgame interviews.

About halfway through the first quarter, with a tight game ensuing, Dicky started becoming conflicted. He was confused because he wanted to “homer” both teams but didn’t know how since they were wearing Tomcat jerseys. As an outlet to his frustration over not being able to taunt the opposing team, he found a new target – the referees. It would start a trend that has carried on for nearly five decades.

Dicky immediately began questioning calls over the air – and also loud enough for some of the refs, “the ones with rabbit ears,” as he called them, to hear.

They ignored him at first, but the criticism kept building with nearly every whistle. Finally, they had enough, and went looking for Ashland school officials.

“We want that guy,” they said, pointing to Dicky, “outta here!”

Dicky stood up and began tearing into them again, saying they weren’t worth the peas in their whistles.

“What did you say?” one of the refs shot back.

It was starting to get ugly. Dicky’s dad was tugging at his son, telling him to calm down, and then Dirk joined in the chorus of berating the referees.

“You’ll never call another AIT here again!” he said.

“You’re not throwing me outta here, by gawd!” Dicky screamed. “This is my house, this is the Tomcat house.”

A few minutes later, the police escorted an agitated Dicky Martin out of the gym. It wouldn’t be the last gym he was tossed from for comments made over the radio. The crowd cheered as he left the gym, but his first full game of doing play-by-play had unceremoniously ended. It was some kind of beginning. He went out to his car and listened to his father and Dirk finish out the broadcast.

He never forgot that moment, and his love-hate (mostly hate) relationship with referees continues to this day. “Well, I don’t know about that,” he said later. “Maybe I do get on them a little bit.”

(Insert eye roll here)

All that craziness happened while two great teams – the 1960 Tomcats and the 1976 Tomcats – did battle on the court. The sideshow was over. The focus was now on them.

Everybody had paused to watch the off-the-court moment that those who attended the game will never forget. But the game was memorable, too. It was some classic basketball.

It was a great defensive game and the 1960 Tomcats had managed a 29-26 halftime lead. It was a tight first half with three points being the largest margin for either team.

The teams were made up of some Ashland legends. The 60 Tomcats had players that would become the 61 state champion Tomcats and they were improving every day. But their best player was David “Ditto” Sparks and he was playing well in this one.

It was same scenario for Patterson’s first Tomcat team. The players that would make up the 30-game winners and state semifinalist the next season were starters in 1976, too. The experienced gained that season made them that much better.

Jim Harkins was one of those players. He began the second half with five consecutive points to put the 76 Tomcats ahead 31-29. He tied the game at 36 later in the quarter with both teams making it hard to score.

“That was some of the best man-to-man defenses that I’ve seen,” Wright said. “Our guys were coming back to the huddle saying they’re getting pushed around some. I told them to push back!”

And they did, which only made the game more physical.

The game went back and forth until the 60 Tomcats put together a defense-fueled 11-0 run that took the game from 43-42 to 54-42. The 76 Tomcats cut the deficit to 60-54 on back-to-back scores from Dummit and Don Allen but could never get any closer.

The 1960 Tomcats were happy to leave Anderson gym with a 64-56 victory.

Sparks, who led the 60 Tomcats with 18 points and eight rebounds, was right there in the mix.

“That timeout, when Coach Wright told us to push back, that made a difference,” he said. “Those guys were taking it to us.”

Patterson said the 60 Tomcats were as talented as any team he’d seen in a long time and the future looked bright for them.

“It won’t surprise me to see them winning the state championship,” he said.

But the Tomcat coach was as concerned with his new radio announcer as anything else.

“Has anybody checked on Dicky?” he asked. “He was fired-up leaving the gym. I haven’t seen that kind of passion in a long time. I hope he comes back. He adds a lot to the program but he’s going to have to learn to behave around those referees.”

Well …

As for the game, Patterson took the loss hard.

“Our defense was good for three quarters, but they scored 21 in the fourth quarter,” he said. “We can’t let that happen and it won’t happen anymore. That’s inexcusable in my program.”

Harkins was the only 76 Tomcat in double figures with 19 points. Jeff Kovach, who found himself banging inside with Gene Smith, was held to eight points and five rebounds. Dale Dummit scored nine and Mark Swift had seven points and three assists.

The 76 Tomcats were forced into 17 turnovers, a statistic that didn’t escape Patterson.

“That’s ridiculous,” he said. “We have to be better.”

Harold Sergent was the only other double-figure scorer for the 60 Tomcats with 13 points. He also had four steals and three assists. Conley had four points, 10 rebounds and four assists.

“We grew up some tonight and played well,” Wright said. “But Dick Martin’s son was the best show I’ve seen in a long time.”

Real life

Ashand’s 1960 team won 29 games and the 16th Region title to end a five-year drought for the Tomcats. They lost to Maysville in the Sweet 16 opener.

Ashand’s 1976 team also snapped a five-year drought by winning the 16th Region title. The Tomcats fell to Christian County in the Sweet 16 opener.

1960 ASHLAND (64) – Sergent 3-10 7-10 13, Smith 3-6 0-0 6, Conley 2-3 0-1 4, Hilton 3-5 0-0 6, Sparks 7-11 4-6 18, Wright 2-6 0-2 4, Cram 1-4 0-0 2, Daniels 0-0 1-2 1, Church 4-8 0-0 8, Sexto 1-5 0-2 2. FG: 26-58. FT:13-23. Rebounds: 34 (Conley 10, Hilton 4, Sparks 8, Wright 4, Cram 2, Daniels 3, Church 2, Sexton 1). Assists: 12 (Sergent 3, Smith 1, Conley 4, Sparks 1, Church 1, Sexton 1). PF: 22. Turnovers: 10.

1976 ASHLAND (56) – M.Swift 2-4 3-7 7, Allen 1-3 0-0 2, Harkins 6-11 7-8 18, Kovach 4-13 0-0 8, Dummit 3-5 3-6 9, Mann 1-4 4-4 6, King 0-0 4-6 4, G.Swift 0-0 1-2 1, Smith 0-1 0-0 0. FG: 17-41. FT: 22-33. Rebounds: 24 (M.Swift 2, Allen 2, Kovach 5, Harkins 4, Dummit 4, King 4, Smith 3). Assists: 10 (M.Swift 3, Allen 1, Harkins 1, Kovach 2, Mann 1, King 1, Smith 1). PF: 21. Turnovers: 17.

1960 ASHLAND       14       15       14       21            –           64

1976 ASHLAND       10       16       16       14            –           56



Mann of moment: 75 Tomcats outrun 73 Cats in shootout

ASHLAND, Ky. – Only a couple of years separated the 1973 and 1975 Ashland Tomcat basketball teams and they met similar disappointing fates in the 16th Region tournament.

So a simulated redemption game between them seemed appropriate.

Both were coached by Steve Gilmore, so a volleyball referee standard was set up behind the scorer’s table at midcourt to allow him to be in control of both sides from a higher perch. It’s a good thing Coach Gilmore’s balance was above par because this game was a head-turner with points coming in rapid fashion from buzzer to buzzer.

They decided before the game to put the 3-pointer in play, which meant even more points. Both teams loved the long distance shot.

Dick Martin Sr. was calling the game until he lost his voice midway through the third quarter and son Dicky took over the play-by-play. The audition led him to take over the job in 1976, but that’s a story for another day.

This one was about a pair of run-and-gun teams who engaged in a catch-me-if-you-can game of basketball much to the delight of a packed house at Anderson gym who showed how much they appreciated these exciting teams.

“One good thing about it,” Gilmore said, “I wasn’t going to lose this game. But, then, I wasn’t going to win either. Well, either way, it was fun watching these guys run up and down the floor. I’m not sure what happened to either team’s defense. I was calling for timeouts but nobody would look up.”

Sure enough, it was a strange night all around. But it was offensive basketball at its finest.

Jimmy Mann of the 1975 Tomcats was on fire like nobody had ever seen him, finishing with a simulation record 37 points and 14 rebounds. He made 16 of 20 shots from the floor and even found a way to collect three assists.

“He was the Mann,” Gilmore said with a wink.

The game was extremely tight and that was expected from these evenly matched teams who were so familiar they had two players who played for both teams. More on that later. The fans packed the stands for what they figured to be a shootout. The Wild West had nothing on these teams.

It was tied 22-22 after the first quarter with neither team holding more than a four-point advantage. In the second quarter, the 75 Cats moved ahead behind Mann’s scoring. He had 26 points at the intermission, nearly half of the Tomcats’ 54-point total.

He left to a standing ovation from both sides.

“I’ve never shot the ball like that before,” admitted Mann, who didn’t miss his first 12 shots. Number 13 went around and around the rim before spinning out.

“I tell you what, Jimmy Mann put us in a hole all by himself,” said Steve Dodd of the 73 Cats. “I’ve never seen anything like it. We knew he could shoot but my goodness who shoots the ball like that?”

The 75 Cats built a 54-43 lead at the half and the offense seemed to know exactly what the defense was doing. The teams were so familiar with each other that the defenses almost never had a chance to stop them.

“We were running the same offenses and defenses,” Gilmore said. “This was almost more like an AAU game. Very little defense was being played.”

Neither team had the 3-point shot when they played in the early 70s – the rule didn’t come into play until 1987 – but they experimented with it in the simulation. They both had some good moments with it too.

The 75 Cats were 8-for-23 with Steve Kovach and Mark Collins swishing three apiece. Danny Evans nailed three-of-five for the 73 Cats. He hardly had to change his style, although Evans was caught looking down several times to make sure his feet were behind the arc when pulling up for the long shot at the end of fast breaks, a staple move for him.

“How many times have I watched Danny Evans make that shot,” Gilmore said. “I knew every time he stopped at the top of the key on that fast break it was going in. He got real comfortable with that shot.”

Evans finished with 15 points and 10 assists, four rebounds and three steals. He was one of four in double figures and two others scored nine for the 73 Cats.

“We got the offense moving but didn’t make many stops,” Evans said. “We’re better than that on defense. That part was disappointing but the game was fun.”

However, despite pulling within four points on several occasions in the second half, the 73 Tomcats had it down to a 60-58 deficit when Dodd scored on a putback. They trailed only 68-64 going into the fourth quarter.

“The 73 team had some momentum,” Gilmore said. “But that big run did them in.”

A 13-0 spurt ignited by a pair of triples from Collins and two surprising ones from the 6-foot-6 Kovach brought the score to 81-64 in favor of the 75 Tomcats.

That was as close as the 73 Tomcats would get to the 75 Cats, who pulled away for a 94-81 victory that had the fans buzzing.

Mann scored 11 in the second half for his 37-point total and Collins finished with 16 points. Bryan Salyers scored 12 with six assists. It was a scoring-fest for the 75 Cats, who shot a blistering 53 percent from the floor.

“That was a lot of fun,” said 75 Tomcat reserve Greg Estep. “When we got it moving, we really got it moving. It was good to get together with these guys again. We both hated how our seasons ended a lot sooner than either one of us thought it should have.”

The 75 Tomcats bowed out in the first round of the region against Greenup County after going undefeated against region competition during the regular season. The 73 Cats fell to Boyd County in the regional final.

Both of them had high hopes of a trip to the Sweet 16.

“I loved both of these basketball teams,” Gilmore said afterward. “They were outstanding teams who played well and competed hard. And let me tell you, I don’t know how those volleyball refs stand on those ladders for so long. My feet are killing me. So is my back. But it was a good view of a fun to watch basketball game, even if they never heard me much.”

Dodd and Evans, two future coaches, did much of the bench work for the 73 team. Dodd also finished with 10 points and 12 rebounds. In another rare twist, Kovach was matched against himself on several occasions. The sophomore Kovach had 10 points and six rebounds and the senior Kovach finished with 11 points and five rebounds. Salyers also scored for both teams.

Only in simulation world will that happen.

The 73 Cats were forced into 26 turnovers in the high-flying game. Salyers and Estep had three steals apiece.

Meanwhile, Dicky Martin was breathless after calling a lot of the second half of the high-scoring game. “I love this,” he said. “I’m going to try and do a few more games.”

Pete Wonn, who did the color commentating, said the younger Martin was a natural.

“A star is born,” he said.

Real life

Ashland’s 1973 team compiled a 22-5 record and reached the finals of the regional tournament where the Tomcats fell to Boyd County, 73-64. A week earlier the Lions defeated the Tomcats 77-73 in Anderson gym. It was the first time Ashland had ever lost to Boyd County.

Ashland’s 1975 team was highly regarded with great overall size. The Tomcats were 19-9 and were undefeated against region competition until the loss to Greenup County that soured the season.

1973 ASHLAND (81) – Evans 5-11 2-3 12, G.Conley 4-11 1-1 9, Kovach 4-9 102 9, Dodd 5-9 0-1 10, Smith 3-7 3-3 10, Booker 3-5 4-5 11, Heffner 2-4 0-0 4, Wilcox 0-2 3-5 3, R.Conley 2-6 2-2 6, Salyers 0-1 2-2 2. FG: 28-65. FT: 20-26. 3FG: 5-13 (Evans 3-5, G.Conley 0-1, Smith 1-3, Booker 1-4). Rebounds: 32 (Evans 4, Kovach 2, Dodd 12, Smith 4, Booker 3, Heffner 4, R.Conley 1, Salyers 2). Assists: 18 (Evans 10, G.Conley 1, Kovach 3, Dodd 1, Smith 1, Booker 2). PF: 19. Turnovers: 26.

1975 ASHLAND (94) – Salyers 5-6 2-2 12, Small 1-3 0-0 2, Collins 6-19 5-8 16, Mann 16-20 5-8 37, Estep 2-5 1-1 5, Kovach 4-6 3-5 11, Craft 2-4 0-0 6, Fosson 1-4 3-4 5, King 0-2 0-0 0. FG: 37-69. FT: 12-18. 3FG: 8-23 (Small 0-2, Collins 3-9, Estep 0-1, Kovach 3-5, Craft 2-4, Fosson 0-2). Rebounds: 36 (Salyers 4, Small 2, Collins 5, Mann 14, Estep 2, Kovach 5, Fosson 4, King 4). Assists: 24 (Salyers 6, Small 1, Mann 3, Estep 2, Kovach 3, Craft 3, Fosson 4). PF: 24. Turnovers: 19.

1973 ASHLAND    22         21         21         17         –              81

1975 ASHLAND    22         32         14         26         –              94

Spinning the biggest hits (and misses) with 1954, 2020 Tomcats

ASHLAND, Ky. – A score-fest was expected when the 1954 and 2020 Tomcats tangled at Anderson gym, where the 3-point line would be in play.

Even though the 54 Tomcats didn’t play with that luxury, they had enough players who could launch from there with good success and the 2020 Tomcats simply feasted behind the stripe. A high-scoring game was expected and that may be why the stands were full early.

Just watching the teams in warmups was satisfying enough. It was like watching Barry Bonds take batting practice. Bill Gray of the 54 Tomcats got real comfortable real fast behind the arc, hitting 10 consecutive triples during one shooting session. It was quite a show to watch and even the kids in the stands were in on the countdown. When the 11th one spun out, a loud “awwww!” could be heard.

On the other end of the floor, the 20 Tomcats went through their normal routine which included a lot of attempts from 3-point land and most of them not even moving the net. They called Anderson gym the Splash Pad during the undefeated season for a reason.

Justin Bradley gave 2020 Tomcats a little of everything. (Kim Phillips photo)

Nobody had seen this many times before in Anderson gym, but the fans were on their feet cheering during warmups!

It helped too that the always prepared public address announcer Chuck Rist was spinning songs from the 1950s and every other era leading up to the 2000s in a rotating basis that only he could do. The place was absolutely bumping and his infectious music was one of the reasons why. It was part basketball, part rock concert.

Meanwhile, 2020 Tomcat coach Jason Mays was sitting on his bench taking in the pregame like it was a giant Slurpee. He couldn’t get enough of the basketball sweetness he was watching.

“Can we just send everybody home now?” he asked. “I mean, this is a show right here. Do we need to mess that up by playing?”

Mays was right. It was a show with a lot of shooting stars. Literal shooting stars. An all-night game of H-O-R-S-E would have been worth the admission. But both teams were itching to play this virtual shootout.

The 54 Tomcats are part of Ashland Tomcat lore, a team that some say overachieved in making it to the state semifinals where they lost a close one to Newport and then finished in third place during a time when consolation games were played.

George Conley was in his last season as coach of the Tomcats in 1954, but the Senator still had a fire burning in his belly and he relayed that competitive edge to his players and to anybody within ear-shot.

Conley was intently watching the 2020 Tomcats swish in shot after shot after shot in pregame. He couldn’t take his eyes off them.

“Do those guys ever miss?” he asked. “Well,” answering his own question, “they will after we knock a few of them on their as…”

He was interrupted by a manager who said he was needed at the scorer’s table, something about the starting lineup. (Good thing since this is a family publication).

Rist quickly pulled up the song “That’s All I Want From You” as Conley walked over to check on the book. He followed that up with “Mister Sandman.”  The fiery coach scowled at him after that one.

“Do we have to play that infernal music?” he asked.

The crowd was worked into a frenzy as the teams headed to the respective dressing rooms with Rist switching to “You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet.” They had sized up each other, received some final instructions from coaches and were ready to go for a rip snorting game.

They may have been too amped. Neither team was able to make a 3-pointer in the first quarter, although both fired them up. The 2020 Tomcats did get the offense moving though and led 20-17 when Cole Villers scored on a putback at the buzzer.

The 54 Tomcats began finding the range from downtown in the second quarter with Gray zeroing in from long range. He drilled 3 of 6 on triples in the second quarter, but rolled his ankle when he came down awkwardly on a rebound. Gray was having a dominating game, scoring 14 with eight rebounds, when he was forced to leave.

There was more firepower behind him. Jerry Henderson, Darryle Kouns and Mike Jones weren’t missing many either.

“They got that running game going and we couldn’t do much with them,” Mays said. “I had to figure out a way to slow them down.”

The 54 Tomcats led 43-41 at the half but only because the 2020 Tomcats closed the first half on an 11-2 run. And they were nailing the triples too.

Rist played “Three Coins in the Fountain” as the teams were leaving the floor.

It promised to be an exciting second half.

The teams were so evenly matched and that’s how the second half began playing it. Back and forth they went, shots flying in from everywhere. It seemed like everybody was hot.

“Some Like It Hot” fittingly blared over the loudspeakers during one timeout. Rist was on his game, too.

And his song choice was true, at least on the basketball court.

Gray returned late in the third quarter, but was mostly ineffective. His ankle was heavily taped and he tried to play but was hampered by the injury. He had five points and two rebounds in the second half and didn’t play in the fourth quarter as he sat with an ice pack on the ankle.

“Losing Gray was a tough deal for us to overcome,” Conley said. “He can get hot like he did tonight. The guy is a pure shooter. We missed that in the second half.”

Villers, meanwhile, was lighting up like a Christmas tree. He finished 7-of-9 from behind the arc to lead an explosion for the 2020 Tomcats. All five starters finished in double figures with Villers collecting 25 with 14 rebounds.

The problem wasn’t scoring, it was stopping the 54 Tomcats from scoring.

“We had a lot of trouble guarding Gray in the first half and Henderson in the second half,” Mays said. “Gray is as good a shooter as we’ll ever face and Henderson is hard to cover. He gave us fits. They are a lot like us with a lot of talented players. It’s no wonder it was such a good matchup.”

The 2020 Tomcats were leading 57-56 when Hunter Gillum scored on a drive. Ethan Sellars zipped him a no-look pass as he was moving toward the basket. He caught it in stride and laid in the bucket.

In a game that was tied a dozen times with eight lead changes, the 2020 Tomcats were trying to finish it off. Justin Bradley, who had 17 points and 12 rebounds, drilled a turnaround jumper and Colin Porter popped in a step-back 12-footer to make it 75-70 with 1:45 remaining.

Conley took a timeout, rallied his players around him, and set up some strategy to get back in the game. And it worked.

They came out to “Shake, Rattle and Roll” playing in the gym as Rist kept pushing the right buttons. The crowd was dancing in the aisles. They really were!

54 Tomcat Bill Kazee drilled his only 3-pointer to make it 75-73. Villers scored again for a 77-73 advantage, but Henderson came right back scored on a putback, then forced a turnover that allowed Kouns to get off a 15-footer at the buzzer that was all net and it was 77-77.

In the overtime period, Villers struck with his seventh 3-pointer to make it 80-77 and again the 54 Tomcats answered. When Kouns rebounded his own miss and put it back in, the game was tied again at 83 with only 15 seconds to play.

Mays called a timeout to set up strategy and set up a last-second play for Porter. But the 54 Tomcats had countered with a defense that trapped Porter before he could drive. Despite a double-team, he was somehow able to kick it out to Bradley who was open in the far corner. The 2020 Tomcats had already made 11 of 24 from behind the arc. Bradley never hesitated, not for a split second, and let it fly … swish! The 2020 Tomcats had won 86-83 with the last-second thriller.

And Rist was ready with “Celebration” already queued up.

Gray area

Bill Gray only played a few minutes in the second half but he still finished with 19 points and 10 rebounds. The 54 Tomcats obviously missed his presence.

“It’s part of the game,” Conley said. “I like this little shooters on this 2020 team. They’re some tough kids, tougher than I thought. Good win for them. They represent the Tomcat tradition well.”

Henderson collected 14 points and 15 rebounds and Kouns 16 points and 11 boards.

Villers and Hudson were backed by Sellars with 12 points and Porter with 10 points and seven assists.

Real life

Ashland’s 1954 team won 28 of 34 games and reached the Sweet 16 semifinals where Newport knocked them off 73-69. The Tomcats won the consolation game against Adair County.

Ashland’s 2020 team went 33-0 – the perfect season – but didn’t get to play in the Sweet 16 because of the coronavirus.

1954 ASHLAND (83) – Bailey 3-13, Kazee 2-7 0-0 7, Gray 8-18 0-1 19, Henderson 7-12 0-1 14, Kouns 7-12 2-3 16, Jones 4-12 5-6 13, Hopkins 2-6 0-0 4, Ware 1-3 1-2 3, Conley 1-2 0-0 2. FG: 35-85. FT: 9-14. 3FG: 4-11 (Kazee 1-3, Bailey 0-1, Gray 3-6, Hopkins 0-1). Rebounds: 58 (Kazee 4, Bailey 5, Gray 10, Henderson 15, Kouns 11, Jones 2, Hopkins 2, Ware 7, Conley 2). Assists: 18 (Jones 7, Kazee 1, Bailey 3, Gray 1, Hopkins 4, Conley 2). PF: 23. Turnovers: 17.

2020 ASHLAND (86) – Porter 5-9 0-0 10, Sellars 4-13 0-0 12, Bradley 5-9 6-6 17, Hudson 5-11 2-4 12, Villers 9-20 0-0 25, Phillips 2-5 0-1 4, Gillum 1-1 0-0 2, Adkins 1-2 0-0 2, Atkins 1-2 0-0 2, Davis 0-0 0-0 0. FG: 33-72. FT: 8-11. 3FG: 12-25 (Porter 0-2, Sellars 4-5, Bradley 1-4, Hudson 0-3, Villers 7-9, Phillips 0-2). Rebounds: 52 (Porter 3, Sellars 2, Bradley 12, Hudson 9, Villers 14, Phillips 5, Gillum 4, Adkins 1, Atkins 2, Davis 1). PF: 16. Turnovers: 18.

1954 ASHLAND      17       26       13        21       6       –           83

2020 ASHLAND      20       21       16         20       9        –         86