It’s Game Day Tomcats: Don’t blink

Good morning 2020 Tomcats,

Your day has finally arrived. No more preparation and planning. It’s time to play.

My advice? Don’t blink because, when you do, it will be over. Blink again. It’s been 10 years since this day. Blink another time. You’re looking back on 20 years. Some of your brothers may no longer be here.

Blink again and it’s been 30 years.

Life is short, legacy is forever.

My favorite movie is “Remember the Titans.” I’m sure you’ve seen it. If the Titans had not won that championship game to complete that perfect season in Virginia, they may still be remembered but it would be in a different way. And that movie probably never happens.

The same goes for you. The 2020 Tomcats will be fondly remembered, no matter what happens today. But win and you’re legendary. You’ve been a salve for a community – a world for that matter – that has not only been hurting but turned upside down with a virus that won’t go away.

For Ashland, the 2020 Tomcats were like an early vaccine – a true shot in the arm for the entire community. We’ve rallied around you, cheered for you and watched you from our living rooms (thank you My Town TV) and listened to Dicky Martin talk about you like nobody else can over the airwaves. This week we praised you for the season that almost never happened because of the coronavirus. There hasn’t been much good about 2020 but Tomcat sports – the undefeated basketball team and now you – has been perfection. Forty-three games and counting.

A few days ago I sat down with Coach Herb Conley and Greg Jackson for a podcast and we talked about the 1975 JAWS Tomcat season. They were perfect after 14 games and captured the heart of a community like nothing I can ever remember. When it came to speaking about the St. Xavier championship game in what essentially was the Super Bowl of Kentucky football in 1975, they both became emotional. Tears welled up in Coach Conley’s eyes. “It still hurts,” he said, his voice cracking. Jackson was moved too as his memory zoomed back to that day.

St. Xavier, with a roster of 104 players, outmanned the Tomcats 20-0. It was an unfair advantage, but it was the cards Ashland was dealt. They were in the state’s biggest division, then called Class AAAA, and you play who you play.

It says so much that they are still so well remembered and even revered. I still say it’s one of the greatest Tomcat teams ever.

Don’t blink.

I’ve spoken with those Tomcats who completed the championship in 1990 and 1967. The euphoria and the gratification that goes with it is something even they can’t describe. They are state champions. That’s two words that carry a lot of weight and pride. You have the chance to join that club today.

Not only all that, but you have the opportunity to do what neither of them could do. Perfection is within sight. It’s only 48 game minutes away.

You may have heard the phrase “luck is when opportunity meets preparation.” I think there’s even more to it. If no action is taken when preparation and opportunity collide, nothing happens. It becomes a lost opportunity, a time when you will have wished you did something. That can also translate into regret.

Don’t regret.

Don’t blink.

And WIN!

Remember every second and let’s make sure Elizabethtown remembers the Tomcats.

Ranking Ashland’s all-time playoff victories from 1-10

Even before the mud is cleaned off Ashland’s uniforms after that 10-3 victory over Belfry on Friday night, it’s time to look where that victory ranks among the top 10 in Tomcat playoff history.

Already the 2020 Tomcats are leaving a legacy.

Undefeated and preparing to play for the Class 3A championship against Elizabethtown on Saturday, the Tomcats erased three decades of frustration with that victory against an opponent that simply owned them only a year ago.

For those reasons, along with trying to become the first undefeated team in 62 years, that victory over Belfry ranks at No. 3 behind only the state championship games of 1967 and 1990 that are tied for number one.  The 67 Tomcats defeated Elizabethtown 19-14 in the Class AA finals and the 90 Tomcats downed Lincoln County 35-13 in the Class AAA finals.

Of course, the 2020 Tomcats have the chance Saturday to make that a three-way logjam at the top if they can defeat Elizabethtown.

By the way, state championship victories warrantlything but a No. 1 from me.

But as of now, that semifinal victory is No. 3 on my list. I’d get a good argument (and probably will) from friends of 1967, 1972, 1975 and 1990 who advanced to the championship game with impressive semifinal victories too.

To them I say, sorry, make your own list.

Ashland’s 2020 team chilled the defending state champion Pirates with a mighty impressive defensive performance. They limited the elusive and hard-running Isaac Dixon to only 76 yards and held the Pirates without a touchdown. If not for a late fumble deep in their own territory, the Tomcats were headed for a semifinal shutout.

Yes, 1967 Tomcats, I see your hands waving. Those Tomcats did shut out Belfry, 42-0, in the 67 semifinals. Just wait your turn. You have three different games in the top 10.

The No. 4 spot goes to the 1975 JAWS Tomcats, who had to travel all the way across the state to play Paducah Tilghman in the semifinals that season. It was called the State At-Large championship and Ashland fans raised enough cash to charter a flight for them. The Tomcats cashed in with a hard-fought 13-7 road victory as Gary Thomas jetted his way to the end zone on an 85-yard touchdown run late in the game.

The JAWS victory could have easily been No. 3, it was a close call between them and 2020. Maybe the freshness got them. That win over Paducah was a state championship, of sorts, although the KHSAA officially recognizes St. Xavier as the Class AAAA champion in 1975. The Tigers defeated the Tomcats 20-0 in the equivalent to the Super Bowl the week after the win over Paducah in a battle of the biggest division in Kentucky.

The No. 5 spot goes to Ashland’s 19-14 win over Bell County in the 1990 semifinals. I’m sure Chris Hutt, Dwight Walter and Rhett Robinson are jumping up and down mad at me. Again, sorry fellows, but you’re in some fast company here.

That was a great victory at Putnam Stadium and one of the best games ever played there. Ashland was behind 14-12 in the fourth quarter, went ahead 19-14, and then held off determined Bell County after it had driven to the Tomcats’ 30. They were stopped on a fourth-and-one.

Sixth place belongs to the 1972 Tomcats, a team that is largely and strangely overlooked in history. Severely banged-up Ashland fell to Tates Creek 16-7 in the Class AAA championship game and that seems to be what most people remember – not that there’s anything wrong with being runner-up.

What’s forgotten was a 21-6 rock-solid win over Bryan Station in one of the hardest-hitting games ever played at Putnam Stadium. Both teams came away with considerable injuries and the Tomcats had to practically limp into the finals against Tates Creek. It may have been a different story if they had come out of the semifinals healthier.

The 1967 Tomcats, our first playoff state champions, have the No. 7 and 8 spots with two playoff wins. The first one was a 20-13 win over No. 1 ranked Harrison County in the opening round. That was also the first playoff win in school history, making it even more important.

Harrison County had completely dominated the Tomcats in a preseason scrimmage, scoring 11 touchdowns to zero for Ashland. That week of the playoff game the coaches slept in the office at school and watched 16mm film under their eyes crossed. But the defense knew everything that was coming and it fueled one of the biggest upsets in Tomcat history.

The No. 8 spot is also the 67 Tomcats for their 42-0 blitz over Belfry in the Class AA semifinals. It was 26-0 at the half and never a game in a totally dominating performance.

Being out of semifinal games or huge upsets, the No. 9 spot goes to the 2020 Tomcats for their narrow 10-7 victory over Russell in the district championship game. Again, it was a great defensive effort from this Ashland team, which has allowed only the one touchdown from this game in four playoff victories.

The 10th spot was a tie with the 1988 Tomcats for their first-round 27-20 overtime victory over Russell that set them up for the classic semifinal game against Covington Catholic, where they fell 6-0 in overtime.

The other game at No. 10 was the 2003 second-round playoff game against Boyd County. It was a 24-15 victory and allowed coach Leon Hart to atone for a loss to Boyd County in the last game of the regular season. The Tomcats have not lost to the Lions since that game.

So there you have it. The top 10 playoff wins in Ashland history from my view of watching the Tomcats from various viewpoints (young fan, student, sportswriter, old fan) since 1965.

Agree or disagree with the order, you have to say it’s one heck of a list.

Tomcat fundraising once flew friendly skies

Forty-five years ago, the Ashland football team nicknamed “JAWS” was undefeated and ranked No. 1 yet faced a long bus ride to Paducah for the Class AAAA State At-Large championship.

Even with chartered buses, this would be no easy trip.

“Why don’t we fly?” asked super booster David “Dirk” Payne during a meeting of boosters. They all looked at each other, saw he was serious, and began putting in motion a first in Kentucky high school football history.

The late David Payne loved his Tomcats like few ever have and he wasn’t joking. With those four words, a fundraiser began. Ashland Oil was still in Ashland and they helped secure the Southern Airlines flight that was going to cost $10,000 to take the team, cheerleaders and some boosters from Tri-State Airport in Huntington to Paducah. They would be in the air about an hour, maybe less. They would have been on a bus closer to 10 or 12 hours.

It had never been done before in Kentucky because high school football teams don’t travel by air.

Unless you’re the Tomcats.

They unbelievably were able to collect enough money to pay for the flight as businesses and individuals gladly donated. The Tomcats left on the day of the game and then made those donations good with an inspired 13-7 victory over a highly talented Paducah Tilghman to become State At-Large champions. The next step was St. Xavier in the overall Class AAAA championship.

Ashland was trailing Paducah 7-6 late in the fourth quarter when speedy Gary Thomas followed some great blocking and turned on the jets for an 85-yard touchdown run. I wonder if the Tomcats had made a 12-hour bus ride across the state how the fourth quarter may have played out?

The Tomcats had collected the support of a community and then showed it on the field to improve to 14-0.

For many players on the team, it was their first time on an airplane. Many of them were nervous. Remember, this was only five years removed from the 1970 Marshall plane crash tragedy that took 75 lives and the flight was leaving and coming back to that same airport.

Ashland loves a winner even more than most people. That’s why when they reached out Sunday night to start a fundraiser to help defray cost for one night’s stay before Saturday morning’s championship game against Elizabethtown, Tomcat Nation began opening their wallets and their hearts.

They did so in grand fashion. It was interesting to watch and interact on Facebook as they donated for friends, for their class, for former teammates and for the 2020 undefeated Tomcats who have provided us something good in this COVID-marred year. They have given us something to cheer for when the world seems to be in a perpetual boo since March.

Even the Tomcat opponents have donated. I know one friend who gave $25 from Red Devil Nation and another from Fairview donated. I’m sure there were many others. They are rallying around a great team even while wearing rival colors. How cool is that?

There have been lots of challenges for classes to match donations.

I don’t know how much has been raised but keep giving. Everything helps the cause and maybe $10,000 could be the goal for 2020 too? You’ve dug deep already? Dig deeper. These opportunities at state championships don’t come around every year – it’s been 30 years for the Tomcats. Give them every chance to bring back that title from Lexington and, if there’s money left over, maybe we can size them for some championship rings.

In a normal year, this wouldn’t have to be done. But these Tomcats have played in mostly empty stadiums this season, so the Ashland coffers are empty, too. Empty stadiums, but full hearts.

I love how the Tomcat fans have stepped up, just like they did in 1975 when the late David Payne said, “Why don’t we fly?” If Dirk were here today, he’d be leading the charge to make sure these Tomcats each had a room to themselves and breakfast in bed. You know that’s true. (By the way, Dirk got the last available seat on that plane ride).

How much more ready will the Tomcats be to wake up Saturday morning in Lexington instead of climbing on a bus at 8 a.m. and driving two hours? It might be the difference in a late touchdown and winning or losing.

Just ask those JAWS Tomcats what being fresh can mean when it really matters.

Fly high 2020 Tomcats. This community is behind you.

#BeMemorable

HOW TO GIVE: Checks can be made out to Ashland Athletic Department and mailed to Donna Suttle 1520 Lexington Ave. Ashland KY 41101. If you would like to pay electronically, you may pay in the following ways:

Venmo: https://venmo.com/code?user_id=2786678817161216276

PayPal: https://www.paypal.me/thehoneybelle

CashApp 606-922-9926

Zelle 606-922-9926

A night they would never forget

(This is a chapter from the book Tragedy and Triumph about the 1967 Ashland football season. It was written in 2012).

The week of the state championship game was an exciting one in Ashland. The community was buzzing about the Tomcats as families began to prepare for Thanksgiving on Thursday and a trip to Louisville on Friday for the big game against Elizabethtown. It was an unusually damp and cold fall in Ashland and would continue to be in the days leading up to the finals.

Ashland was used to playing in the mud and muck with precipitation coming practically every Friday night throughout the season. The Tomcats were actually good “mudders” and some of the students thought they even played better in the mud.

“The muddier, the better,” said Cathy Goble, a senior majorette in the band. “I’ve never seen anything like it. It seemed like it rained every Friday night.”

Coach Jake Hallum was always big on family and he wanted to make sure the team was able to eat Thanksgiving dinner with their families on the eve of the state championship. They practiced early that morning, putting in some final game preparations and working on special teams, before being dismissed. The next day, he told them, they would eat a pre-game meal together at Paul G. Blazer High School at 11:30 a.m. and leave for Louisville around 1:30 p.m. It was about a four-hour drive to Louisville since the interstate didn’t yet come all the way to Ashland.

The Tomcats had a good week of practice and a lot of hype in the newspapers. Both teams maybe had to have a bit of a swollen head from the accolades that were being showered down on them from the opposing coaches.

Vince Hancock, coach of 12-0 Elizabethtown, called the Tomcats “the most underrated team the state has ever seen … they’re so big they could be mistaken for a college team. Belfry’s coach (Al Vipperman) told me Ashland is the best high school team he’s ever seen.”

Elizabethtown and Ashland were ranked only No. 8 and No. 9, respectively, in the final Associated Press regular-season poll. Obviously both the Panthers and Tomcats, a combined 24-1, came into the championship a bit underrated. There was only one poll in those days with all the classes combined. Most of the teams that were ahead of E-Town and Ashland were in the higher Class AAA division, which was made up of Louisville schools.

But nobody expected either of these teams to be in the championship game. It was shaping up as a dandy with Elizabethtown’s speed vs. Ashland’s strength. Hallum said E-Town reminded him of Harrison County except “maybe faster. They will probably be the best team we have played. They are a tremendous football team which does everything well.”

What the Panthers did best was utilize their skill players in a wide-open offense that was triggered by quarterback Gary Inman. E-Town was a big ahead of its time with a nice mixture of passing and running. Fullback-linebacker A.C. Thompson, a 5-foot-9, 185-pound senior, averaged five yards  a carry. He was considered the team’s best overall football player. While much of the attention was focused on a high-powered offense that averaged 37 points per game, it was the defense that was even more impressive. The Panthers had given up two touchdowns in a game only once all season, during a 55-12 victory over Shelbyville. Opponents averaged less than a touchdown in a dozen games.

Those were similar averages that Harrison County was putting up before coming to Ashland in the opening week of the playoffs. Hallum said the Panthers were even better than the Thorobreds, a team he said the Tomcats may have only beaten 1 in 10 times.

Inman was a three-year starter and two of the speedy backs, tailback Joe Welch and wingback David VanMeter, averaged 10 and 7 yards per carry, respectively.

E-Town’s soft schedule had come under some scrutiny but playoff victories over Henry Clay (30-0) and Mayfield (14-6) proved to most that it did belong in the finals. It didn’t matter what anybody thought anyway. The Tomcats and Panthers were in the championship game whether anyone thought they deserved to be there or not.

The talking was over. It was time to play.

On the day of the game, the Tomcat players started coming to the Blazer campus earlier than the 11:30 meal time. They were liked caged animals, ready for the long drive to Louisville and even more ready to play for a state championship. Only a few weeks earlier the Tomcats played Louisville Western on the road, winning 29-0. That successful trip was still fresh in their minds and put positive thoughts in their mind for the road ahead.

Little did they know that as they were arriving for the pre-game meal, the car accident that would take a classmate’s life had already happened. Joe Franklin was killed that morning around Farmer’s when the yellow Chevy Supersport he was driving collided with a truck. Franklin died at the scene and four other students  – three basketball players and a manager – managed to survive but were injured.

Franklin was popular in school and a former football player who had been the junior varsity quarterback in 1966 and even went to Camp Arrowhead in Hallum’s first season. He chose to quit football to concentrate his efforts on basketball, the sport where he excelled the most. Franklin most likely would have been a two-year starter for the Tomcats basketball team. They won the 16th Region title in what would have been his senior year of 1969 and reached the state semifinals.

The game plan was set for Friday night but the game plan for preparation would make some drastic changes after the coaches heard the tragic news about Franklin on a planned rest stop break in Mount Sterling. They talked about what to do and it was assistant coach Herb Conley who insisted they not tell the team the horrible news.

“It was definitely the right thing to do,” reflected Hallum nearly 45 years later. “It was tough to do, but it was the right thing. I remember being at the rest area. We told them we needed to get on to Louisville.”

While on the bus, only the coaches knew what had transpired. The players were focusing in on the task at hand. There was safety on the bus but once they unloaded, the coaches had to keep everyone with any knowledge of the accident away from the players. That meant nobody could be around them.

Once they pulled into the Fairgrounds Stadium, they hurried them to the locker room even though the original plan had been to watch the first half of the Class A championship game “to get a feel for the atmosphere.” That plan was out the window. If the Tomcats went into the stands, they would surely hear the news from fans who already knew. The assistant coaches guarded the door to the dressing room, making sure nobody got in. It was breaking news in Ashland even before the team left for Louisville but word didn’t travel instantly like it does today. There were no cell phones or Smartphones with text messaging capabilities, no instant access to the Internet – there wasn’t even an Internet at all. The coaches knew, if they were careful enough, they could keep the players focused on the game and away from the horrible news that could affect how they played.

Ashland’s team happened to be on the side of the Fairgrounds Stadium field that didn’t have stands behind it. Toward the end of the game, though, some fans lined up behind them and Hallum suspected that the news got relayed to a few players. Forty-five years later, several of the players said they had found out during the game.

However, even if they knew, it didn’t affect their play, at least not in the first half.

The Tomcats threatened to turn the state championship game into a rout by building a 19-0 halftime lead. The offensive line – center Bill Culbertson, guards Larry Johnson and Tom Lyons, tackles John Burton and Les Lyons and tight ends Jim Lyons and Russell Jones – were blowing open huge holes for Steve Scott, Tony Mulvaney and Paul Hill.

Hill, who had played sparingly since the regular season ended because of a knee injury, was back in the lineup and running strong again. Quarterback John Radjunas worked the ball-control offense to near perfection. The Tomcats ran 45 of the 62 offensive plays in the first half with short-yardage runs that kept the football out of E-Town’s hands.

Ashland liked nothing better than to ram the ball down the opponent’s throat. “Nobody could play power football any better than us,” Les Lyons said.

Scott, Hill and Les Lyons made pounding runs at the E-Town defense, which was almost helpless to stop the Tomcats, who had 177 yards rushing before intermission.

Ashland marched 59 yards on 13 players after taking the opening kickoff to assume control of the game. Hill’s 12-yard burst out off a block from tackle Les Lyons was a key play. Radjunas completed a pair of passes for 20 yards, including a 16-yard gain to Robbie Keeton, and scored the touchdown on a one-yard sneak behind the ever steady Culbertson. Hill’s extra point kick was to the left and the Tomcats led 6-0 with 7:48 left in the first quarter.

The play that Lyons brought in from the sideline was supposed to go to him but Radjunas changed it to a quarterback sneak. “When I first became a fullback, I fumbled a lot,” Lyons said. “When I was a junior, I got in against Catlettsburg to run the ball and dropped it twice near the goal-line. I took the play in and said, ‘Belly 6 Johnny.’ He said, ‘Oh no. We can’t take a chance on fumbling down here. Quarterback sneak.’’’

Ashland was on the move again on its second possession, this time driving 68 yards on 12 players to make it 12-0. Scott went over from six yards out on the option after left end. Hill’s kick for the extra point again sailed left. Meanwhile, the Tomcats’ defense was putting the clamps on a highly explosive E-Town offense. But mostly, the game of keepaway was what was keeping the Panthers at bay.

A 65-yard drive, this one on nine plays, brought Ashland its final touchdown just 1:29 before halftime. This time the Tomcats used some play-action passes for some big gains. Radjunas connected on a pair of passes for 32 years. The payoff was a 22-yard pitched to the speedy Mulvaney, who dashed to the end zone to make it 18-0. This time Hill connected on the extra point to make it 19-0.

The game was played in perfect conditions – at least as far as the Tomcats were concerned. It was a chilly and rainy night and players were covered in mud. Hancock believed the rain may have hampered E-Town during the first half. “The rain got us mentally down before we even started because we rely so much on our speed and quickness,” Hancock told reporters afterward. “We needed to pass to do well, but the kids just made up their minds in the second half to forget about the weather and play football. I’m proud of them.:

Ashland majorette Cathy Goble remembers coming out of her boots when it was stuck down in the mud. The but the game fit Ashland’s style perfectly. The Tomcats were doing what they do best – controlling the football and playing physically on defense.

E-Town’s first-half numbers were staggering: the Panthers had only three yards rushing and 16 passing.

But it was a different team that came out in the second half.

Elizabethtown got back into the game in a hurry, scoring two touchdowns in a 38-second span. From that point it was iup to the defenses in a championship game that had fans from both teams buzzing.

Safety Rick Ricketts ignited the explosion by returning an Ashland punt 48 yards to the 25 early in the third quarter. Inman, who was 1-for-8 passing in the first half, completed three for 16 yards on the short drive that ended when he swept right for a touchdown from four yards out. He also added the conversion run (then worth only one point) to pull the Panthers within 19-7.

The slippery football gave E-Town a huge break a few seconds later. The ball popped out of Scott’s hands while he was attempting to field the kick. It squirted forward and was recovered by E-Town’s Larry Daniels on the 35.

Ricketts gained 14 yards – the Panthers’ longest run from scrimmage – and Inman connected on a pass to Jim Hartman to the 10. The flanker took it the rest of the way in to complete a 21-yard touchdown play. Inman’s second conversion run made it 19-14 with 3:32 left in the third quarter.

E-Town had dominated the third quarter like Ashland had the first half, running 28 plays to the Tomcats’ nine in the quarter. The drama was just beginning.

The Panthers were on the move again early in the fourth quarter, going from the 50 to the Ashland 25. However, an Inman pass was intercepted by Hill on the 20. Hill said it was actually a wrong read on his part but when he turned, the pass came right to him and he cradled it softly. On the play prior, Radjunas had intercepted a pass but it was nullified by a penalty.

“I was pretty discouraged then,” Radjunas told The Courier-Journal after the game. “But Hill saved us on the next play.”

Hill said he was expecting a screen pass, which the Panthers had executed perfectly in two earlier scoring drives. “But I just cut across the field and there was the ball. I just tried not to drop it. It was like a gift from heaven.:

The clock showed 10:36 remaining at that stage and that’s when Ashland launched its last time-consuming march. While it didn’t result in points, it did chew up most of the time. The Tomcats grudgingly gave up possession on the E-Town 10-yard line with only 1:53 remaining.

Inman, who was 15 of 25 for 151 yards in the second half, completed three passes for 34 yards but the big play was one that goes down statistically as an incompletion. But it could have been a game-changer or probably a game-winner.

With the seconds running out and the ball on Elizabethtown’s 30, fleet-footed Joe Welch managed to get completely behind the Ashland secondary on the latter’s 35. Inman had time to throw but the pass, which had touchdown written all over it, was overthrown by about five yards. It felt harmlessly incomplete and the Tomcats – and especially Radjunas, who had been beaten on the play – breathed a sign of relief.

“This is the greatest win I’ve ever had,” Radjunas said. Then he rhetorically asked, “What did Coach Hallum do to change Ashland into a power? He created enthusiasm in our football program. Before we came down there, there were signs all over town encouraging us.”

Jim Lyons, the fine blocking tight end, was thrilled to have a part of the championship, too. “We set our goal to win this thing two years ago when Coach Hallum first came to Ashland. It’s hard to believe it’s ours now.”

With that, Hallum called all the players over to huddle up around him and then told them the grim news about Joe Franklin’s death. The celebration that had ensued on the field and spilled into the dressing room was finished. There was nothing but stone silence, except for the shuffling of cleats on the concrete floor as the Tomcats took off their uniforms, some for the last time.

They had won the game they wanted to win but a friend’s shocking death made it all seem so hollow.

It would indeed be a night they would never forget.