A Tomcat with toughness for a middle name

MOREHEAD – Hunter Gillum may not go down as the greatest athlete in Ashland history, but he has to be in the conversation as one of the toughest.

And Gillum, who leads with his heart, is a winner where few others have tread.

You can add a second regional basketball championship to his resume, to go along with a football state championship where his grittiness was equally on display and a big reason why the Tomcats won that title last fall. He’s the kind of player that if he’s on the other team, you just hate him. But if he’s on your side, you sure are thankful.

“You can’t quantify toughness,” said Ashland coach Jason Mays. “You can’t put a metric on toughness. Whatever that metric is for Hunter Gillum, it’s off the charts. He says ‘my hearts as big, if not bigger than yours.’ He helped us win that game tonight. He understands everything execution-wise from the point guard spot. Coaching against him, he’s like an aggravating gnat.”

More like a maroon-and-white Murder Hornet.

The Tomcats’ marvelous basketball team was on the edge of the cliff, but Gillum’s toughness helped them cling to the edge and then will them to an improbable come-from-behind 62-58 overtime victory over Rowan County in the 16th Region championship game Saturday afternoon.

Hunter Gillum (middle with trophy) has brought a toughness to the Ashland basketball team that has provided an undeniable spark.

Ashland battled back from an 11-point deficit with its heart-and-soul point guard fouled out with 6:24 remaining on a questionable call (let’s leave it right there). It looked desperate. Maybe even impossible. No team had rallied from such a deficit in region championship game before in history.

It’s a history that said when a team took a lead into the fourth quarter of the championship game, it was all but net-cutting time. The biggest deficit overcome going into the fourth quarter was only four points when Mt. Sterling trailed Grayson 21-17 and won 24-21 in the 1942 regional finals. The biggest deficit overcome after three quarters of any regional tournament game was 12 points by Sharpsburg, which trailed Carter County 56-44 before rallying for a 74-72 victory in a first-round game.

But back to Gillum, who last year in the regional tournament emerged as a key player during the 33-0 Tomcat campaign. His last start because of football’s run to the title meant he was going to be coming along a little slower this season, and in fact he did. But his spark (more like a lightning bolt) has been apparent again toward the end of the regular season and especially in the postseason.

Gillum’s energy ignites the defense and he has become a cautious and efficient point guard he chooses when to shoot wisely. Even when Rowan County was daring him to shoot, he chose to penetrate and dish to the more reliable Cole Villers or Ethan Sellars. That’s evidence of a player who understands his role perfectly and has decided it’s team over me. Winning is all that matters and he gets it.

Ashland isn’t planning a trip to the Sweet 16 next week without Hunter Gillum, and the Class AAA state football championship trophy that the Tomcats own is in somebody else’s trophy case without him too.

History may reflect this as being the team of Cole Villers, Colin Porter and Ethan Sellars – and rightfully so – because those three guards are unflappable and tremendously talented. But sometimes you need that winning play and toughness that only some players have deep down inside them to become a champion.

Ashland has that in Hunter Gillum, a senior who will be remembered for being the toughest guy on the block. The Tomcats are glad to have that bully on their side.

Best time to be an Ashland Tomcat? It may well be

Welcome to 16th Region championship Saturday!

Ashland plays Rowan County today at 2 p.m. in Ellis T. Johnson Arena for the boys final and Russell and Boyd County meet in the girls final at 6 p.m.

The Tomcats are in the regional championship game for the fourth year in a row.

Coach Jason Mays has an 8-0 record in the regional tournament since arriving on the scene. The Tomcats are 52-4 the past two years. That’s astounding when you think about it.

Somebody asked the other day on Facebook has there ever been a better time to be a fan of the Tomcats?

It’s hard to imagine. Last year, the Tomcats went 33-0 in basketball and followed that with an 11-0 state championship football season.

The 1966 Tomcats won the regional basketball tournament and went 25-0 to win the state baseball championship that spring. The following year the baseball team (again) won the state baseball title and the football team followed that fall with a football state title.

Colin Porter protects the ball against tight defense from West Carter. John Flavell, a fixture at the regional tournament for years, took this photograph. His pictures tell the story as well as anyone could. John, a teacher at Morehead State, is one of the finest photographs in Kentucky and a great friend to me over the years. His work is appreciated by all who see it.

In 1976, the basketball Tomcats began a string of five consecutive regional titles and that came on the heels of the 1975 JAWS championship football team. So that wasn’t a bad time either.

The Tomcats were state basketball champions in 1961 and the next fall went 8-1-1 in football but didn’t make the playoffs, which started in 1959.

Way back in 1928, the Tomcats went 37-0 and won the state and national basketball championships and the 1928 football team finished 10-0-1. Record-wise anyway, that hadn’t been matched until 2020 with the Tomcats going unbeaten in basketball and football back-to-back in spring and fall.

So to answer the question of Rhett Robinson, who made the comment, it may be the best time to be a Tomcat. Rhett knows about championships too being part of the 1990 state football Tomcats.

Karma calling?

Seems to me that if karma is a real thing (I’m not saying it is or isn’t) then Ashand will defeat Rowan County today in the finals.

Last year’s perfect season had a most imperfect finish because of the coronavirus. They are forever in limbo as a 33-0 team but never really knowing if they would have won the state tournament (unless you read Tomcat Tales, which reveals the result!).

Put karma in Ashland’s corner today.

My Town TV salute

Where would we all be without My Town TV televising games not only last year but this year as the coronavirus raged?

Despite the amazing success in basketball and football, few people outside of parents have seen the Tomcats in-person during much of the season.

But we have been able to watch much of Ashland’s season because of technology. My Town TV does an outstanding job of bringing the Tomcats into our living rooms and I know many are thankful for that opportunity they presented us.

So a tip of the hat to Jeromy Sutherland, Chris Pullem, Mike Miller, Bryan Barber, Tyler Rowland and others involved in showing the games to a fan base that would have been so saddened to miss all this.

That said, I’ve enjoyed the calls from Dicky Martin (like always) when the games weren’t available on television. He is a rock in the Tomcat program.

Porter’s winning shot

Colin Porter’s incredible 3-point shot at the buzzer to end regulation tied the Tomcats game with West Carter in the semifinals on Thursday.

It wasn’t surprising that he hit the shot. My guess is he’s practiced that move hundreds if not thousands of times. I’ve never seen a point guard with the IQ of Colin at such a young age. Remember, he’s only a sophomore. He loves the big moments and found himself in one with the ball in his hands and time running out on the Tomcats’ season. He never hesitated.

Schedule-maker

Coach Jason Mays makes no apologies for a globe-trotting schedule that he said would make the Tomcats better. He was right.

Ashland took on all-comers and two of those opponents, Highlands and Bowling Green, have already clinched spots in the Sweet 16. Johnson Central, Boyle County and North Laurel will are regional championship games.

So as many as five foes could be part of this year’s state tournament.

Highlands and Bowling Green were two of four teams to defeat Ashland.

Streaking Tomcats

Ashland has won 36 consecutive games against 16th Region opponents, dating back to the 2019 regional tournament. The Tomcats’ last loss against a regional foe was to Boyd County in the 2019 64th District championship game.

The Tomcats’ own the region’s longest winning streak at 51 games between 1975 and 1980. Paul Patterson never lost against a regional opponent from 1975-1979, capturing four consecutive region titles in the process.

Ernie Simpson took the 1980 team to the Sweet Sixteen, losing only once in the region against Holy Family in the district championship before avenging that loss in the region championship.

Familiar names, talents

In a year of things that aren’t normal, there are two in the regional tournament that are quite normal and very good: Chuck Rist doing the PA for the games and John Flavell taking photographs for The Daily Independent. The are both artists. I used one of John’s photos as an example. He’s such a good friend and the absolute best sports photographer in Kentucky.

Tomcat Tales podcast

If you haven’t already been listening to Tomcat Tales podcast, then start today.

Friday’s podcast was an interview with Rob Lynch, who led Ashland to the 1992 regional title and has been instrumental in guiding young Tomcats to following their dreams. He comes from my favorite Tomcat family. They have been part of regional tournament basketball champions in 1966, 1970, 1971, 1992, 1993, 1996 (state runner-up) and three state baseball championship teams in 1966, 1967 and 1968.

The Lynches have scored 5,799 combined points and Rob’s sons are coming up through the system so 6,000 points isn’t that far away. Amazing.

Here is a rundown of the Lynch legacy with years, games, total points. Rob would have been in 1,000-point club if not for a broken foot that cost him several games his senior year.

Lynch, Bill ………………. 1964-66         60        416

Lynch, Bob……………… 1966-68         86      1278

Lynch, Chris……………. 1994-96         81        846

Lynch, Dale…………….. 1970-72         90      1025

Lynch, Michael………… 1993-95        99      1348

Lynch, Rob……………… 1990-92         76        878

Lynch, Ryan……………. 1993                2            8

Next week’s podcast includes an interview with Jeff Hall, the former Fairview and Louisville great who also coached the Tomcats for two seasons including the 1992 regional title team.

Search Tomcat Tales wherever you get your podcasts.

And the winner is …

For many years as sports editor of The Daily Independent, the mysterious Swami made predictions of the regional tournament.

Here’s one for the road: Ashland 70, Rowan County 66.

When famous evangelist Billy Sunday came to Ashland

A friend recently found some old newspaper clippings from the Ashland Daily Independent that were tucked away in one of her grandmother’s old catalogs. Some of them dated back to 1917 but were in incredibly good shape. She posted many of the clipped-out articles and shared them on Facebook. Flipping through her Facebook post was fascinating and educational, like having a time capsule in front of you.

I don’t claim to know everything about Ashland – especially outside the sports arena – but I’ve long been a fan of reading old newspapers via microfilm machines. The writing is creative yet in a far different way from today. Most of the sports reports never included any comments from coaches or players but often lists the entire starting lineup in football and basketball and practically every play that happened.

Included in this treasure trove of newspaper clippings was one about world-famous evangelist Billy Sunday preaching in Ashland. He was here in January of 1922 at the First M.E. Church on 18th Street and Carter Avenue (aka the “Chocolate Church”).

Sunday was met in Huntington and a caravan of cars brought him to Ashland. He left after also speaking at the Rotary Club.

Sunday, known for his dramatic flair while speaking, preached for an hour “to the largest audience Ashland has ever sent to hear a preacher,” the newspaper reported. He was introduced by the Rev. H.V. Carson, pastor of the First Presbyterian Church and president of the Ashland Ministerial Association, which remains in operation today.

Sunday’s fiery sermon was entitled “Is it well with thee?” and the evangelist didn’t hold back. He spoke on the welfare of the wife, husband and child and especially the child. The newspaper quoted the famed evangelist extensively in the story about his visit, which I also found interesting since quotes were seldom found in most stories.

“My friends, little can you realize how the child looks to you for guidance, looks to you for an example. Will you come through? Will the only times that he hears the name of God from you be when in profanity or derision when you take the name of the Lord in vain?”

He talked about the importance of getting children into Sunday School so they could learn about Jesus to help them through life’s difficulties.

“The Sunday schools lost 500,000 children because their parents did not take them to the Sunday School, setting them an example and teaching them the right way to live.” He said it was up to the parents to get their children in church “to show him that he cannot fight the battles of life without the assistance of Jesus Christ.”

Sunday spoke of what can happen if parents don’t have control of their children and haven’t taught them about Jesus including a girl “giving up her virtue” and the boy “entering a bootlegging joint with no one to say that is not right.” He was a huge proponent of Prohibition with his preaching likely playing a role in the adoption of the Eighteenth Amendment in 1919.

Sunday also talked to the wife and asked if her husband was “merely the man whose name she bears” or do you realize that “without Christ he is lost and that you will never see him again? Are you working to save his soul?”

What Sunday preached 100 years ago largely rings true today.

Sunday was a famous baseball player, too, who played as a speedy outfielder in the National League for eight years with the Cubs, Pirates and Phillies before leaving the game for the Christian ministry. He once stole 84 bases in a single season in 1890 and had a career .248 batting average with 246 steals.

But it was in the pulpit where he was most effective in life, becoming the nation’s most famous evangelist partly because of his frenetic delivery where his movement in the pulpit was active and unique, almost as if he was winding up to pitch. His audiences were smaller in the 1920s as he grew older and other sources of entertainment began to appear which may explain why he was in Ashland. But he was a strong defender of conservative Christianity until he died in 1935.

Sunday was 59 when he preached in Ashland, but at least the famous evangelist was here, if only for one hard-hitting sermon.

Former Ashland Tomcat great Ivan Curnutte dies at 85

GREENSBURG, Ky. – Ivan Curnutte, an Ashland Tomcat football great from the 1950s who went on to play at the University of Kentucky with coach Bear Bryant, died on Feb. 3, 2021 at the Northwest Medical Center in Tucson, Arizona. He was 85.

Curnutte, who starred for the Tomcats in 1951 and 1952, was a hard-charging halfback who rushed for 1,824 yards and 15 touchdowns as the feature back for coach Charlie Eblen.  

He went on to UK to play with his brother Delmas “Duke” Curnutte, a former Tomcat lineman who was recruited by Bryant to play at UK. Bryant went to Texas A&M after the 1953 season at UK and was replaced by Blanton Collier.

Ivan Curnutte started the Green County High School football program in Greensburg, Ky., in 1962 and was the school athletic director and assistant principal from 1975 until 1988 when he retired as an educator. He also coached two seasons at Louisa High School in 1958 and 1959 when his teams finished 6-4 and 4-6.

As a Tomcat, he was the leading rusher in 13 of 21 games. Two of his best performances came against Ironton. He ran for a career-high 208 yards in a 37-12 victory over the Tigers as a senior and had 103 yards in a 20-19 win over Ironton at home as a junior.

Curnutte also had outstanding games against Portsmouth with 124 yards in a 34-13 win over the Trojans as a junior and gained 106 yards in a 28-25 loss to the Trojans in Putnam Stadium to close out his Tomcat career.

He ran for 807 yards at 6.2 per carry as a junior on a team that finished 6-5 under Eblen. In the season opener, Curnutte returned a kickoff for a touchdown against Catlettsburg. Eph Woods had taken the kick and when he saw a defender coming at him, lateraled to Curnutte, who went the rest of the way to the end zone. Woods couldn’t avoid the collision and suffered a broken leg on the play.

The 1951 team include All-State guard Jerry Clark and standouts Tom Gates, John Johnson, Charlie Webb and Don Clere. Bill Carter, Rex Miller and Bob Sang joined Eblen on the coaching staff.

The Tomcats were 6-2-2 in Curnutte’s senior season in 1952, tying the first two games of the season by identical 7-7 scores against Catlettsburg and Stonewall Jackson.

Curnutte rushed for 1,017 yards and averaged 8.3 per carry with 10 touchdowns as a senior. Eblen and the same coaching staff returned.

Earl “Brother” Adkins was his backfield running mate during his senior season. Better known for his basketball prowess, Adkins was nifty on the football field too, rushing for 601 yards.

Curnutte was a first-team All-State running back as named by the Paducah Sun. Guard Bob Stambough also made the first team by the Paducah Sun. Lineman Clyde Cordle, quarterback Mickey Hemlepp and running back Clere were other standouts.

Curnutte’s funeral is Thursday in Greensburg with visitation on Wednesday. He is survived by Della Curnutte, his wife of 64 years, a son Michael Dean “Alfie” Curnutte of Greensburg, three grandchildren, a great-grandson and a sister, Camilla Jo Tussey (wife of Mike Tussey). Another son, Anthony Ellis “Tony” Curnutte, preceded him in death in 2007 along with his brother Duke Curnutte in 2018.

Duke Curnutte’s son, Steve Curnutte, led the 1971 Tomcats to an 11-2 season. Steve was a quarterback and hard-hitting defensive back who went on to play at Vanderbilt and was drafted in the 17th round of the 1976 NFL Draft by the New York Giants.