ASHLAND, Ky. — The only sound outside Ashland Blazer High School on a recent morning came from a halyard rope pinging against the flag pole. It’s the kind of background noise nobody notices most of the time, but it seemed invasively loud amid the prevailing silence.
On a normal March weekday, this school of 900 students would be a hive of youthful activity. In the new reality, it was a ghost town. The only thing happening here was health screenings by nurses, who were using the lobby of James A. Anderson Gymnasium to alleviate traffic at the local hospital in these unprecedented times.
This blue-collar town of about 20,000 is a long way from anywhere. Cross the Ohio River via the downtown bridge and you’re in Ohio; drive eight miles south and cross the Big Sandy River at the Marathon Oil refinery and you’re in West Virginia. But the impact of the coronavirus outbreak can be felt even here, in this nook in the northeast corner of Kentucky.
Hence the health screenings in the gym lobby. And the silence shrouding a school cut into an Appalachian hillside.
Just off the lobby, Ashland boys basketball coach Jason Mays sat in his office and contemplated a perfect season on hold. The 33-0 Tomcats were supposed to be playing in the Kentucky High School Athletic Association state tournament this week. An undersized group of fearless three-point shooters was trying to become the first undefeated state champion since 1948.
Instead, they are a team in limbo. The KHSAA has postponed but not yet canceled the Sweet Sixteen—the last of the great single-class state basketball championships, a five-day festival that plays out in Rupp Arena every March. A cancellation feels inevitable, but until it happens the Tomcats wait, hoping they’ll get their chance to go down in Kentucky history as an all-time great team.
“It’s cloudy,” said Mays, rubbing the palms of his hands against his forehead as if it might push the frustration out of his mind. “We still don’t have 100% clarity, so we’re still in that cloudy waiting period.
“This is a process of understanding what patience means, and what perspective means. These kids don’t know this yet, but sometimes learning how to deal with disappointment, with uncontrollable circumstances, can be the most important lesson they learn. … We told them, ‘We don’t have victims in our program. You’re not a victim in this. You just have to learn to deal with this.’ “
Mays and Ashland athletic director Mark Swift have underscored the larger societal implications to their players. The kids get it, and they know there are countless other athletes around the world dealing with a sudden halt of their sports. But they’re also teenagers who were on the cusp of accomplishing a lofty goal, and now that goal seems to be disappearing just as they reach for it.
“It’s awful,” said leading scorer Cole Villers. “We’ve worked all year, and basically all our lives, for this. But there’s still hope, so we’re working out every day. If we do play, we’ll be ready.”
Ashland’s Sweet Sixteen path was supposed to start Wednesday afternoon against Elizabethtown. If they kept winning, the Tomcats would have moved on to the quarterfinals Friday, semifinals Saturday and finals Sunday.
“We had the parade planned for Sunday afternoon,” said Dicky Martin, radio voice of the Tomcats for the last 44 years, sitting in Mays’ office.
“I don’t know if we would have won it,” said Mays. “But …”
“Oh, we would have won it,” Martin interjected.
“… People out in the state didn’t know how good we were,” Mays said, finishing his thought.
“Out in the state” of Kentucky, there is a general cynicism toward teams from Eastern Kentucky that pile up gaudy records against relatively light competition. There tends to be a comeuppance when those squads meet up with athletic teams from Louisville, Lexington or the Northern Kentucky towns that are just across the Ohio River from Cincinnati. Mountain basketball has its own lyrical lore, but much of it is dated.
The Tomcats were dead set on changing that. They played a solid schedule that included victories over two Louisville teams—one of them defending state champion Trinity. They handled all comers, with just two games decided by a single possession. The latter of those two made Ashland briefly famous.
In a tie game on the road at West Carter with two seconds remaining, Mays drew up a play in a timeout that called for his center to take the inbounds pass and then hit one of two wings as they streaked up the sidelines. Then they broke the huddle and Villers went up to inbounder Ethan Hudson and vetoed the play.
“Throw it to me,” Villers told him.
“I saw him say it,” Mays said.
Hudson passed it to Villers on the sideline. He took two dribbles and let it fly from about 60 feet out. The shot swished, and suddenly Ashland had the top play on “SportsCenter” that night. That made the Tomcats 27-0, and that got Mays thinking seriously about an undefeated season.
That would put this team among the greats in the history of a program steeped in tradition—a tradition that has been handed down for generations. The town of Ashland has seen better days—the shuttering of AK Steel last year was the latest blow in an economic downtown that led to a 33% population decline since 1960—but it has always loved its Tomcats.
Earlier this season, Ashland became the first team in Kentucky history to win 2,000 games. There are two landmark teams in the school’s history: the 1928 undefeated team and the 1961 state champs—the fourth and final Ashland team to capture the Kentucky state title. You can’t go far at the school without being reminded of either of those squads.
Just a few feet from where the nurses were taking temperatures of walk-in patients, a plaque on the wall commemorates Ashland’s 1928 national championship team—yes, national champions. That triumph came shortly after the Tomcats beat Carr Creek (a team of nine players who were all cousins, from a remote coal-mining community deep in the Appalachian mountains) 13-11 in quadruple overtime to win the state championship.
The national high school tournament was a popular, wildly ambitious undertaking that brought dozens of teams to Chicago in the 1920s and ‘30s. The ’28 tournament featured teams from as far west as Idaho and as far east as Maine. The bracket that records the results sprawls across two pages of a coffee-table book that commemorates that Tomcats team.
After Ashland defeated Canton, Ill., 15-10 to win the title, the Tomcats returned to Kentucky as conquering heroes. They were feted at banquets and theaters in Louisville, some 175 miles west of Ashland, and introduced on the biggest radio station in the state, WHAS.
The coach of that team is the namesake of the school gym, James Anderson—better known, back in the day, as “Goober.” The star player, Ellis Johnson, became Adolph Rupp’s first All-American at Kentucky and went on to coach four sports at Morehead State. Ninety-two years later, that team remains a point of pride in Ashland—not only for the national championship, but the state title it won as well, the first of four in school history.
The 1961 team, led by future Kentucky great and ESPN analyst Larry Conley, roared through the season with just one loss, by one point. Before Dicky Martin was the voice of the Tomcats, the job belonged to his father, Dick. While working the ’61 state tournament, Dick Martin called home to Ashland and told his wife to bring young Dicky to Lexington, because the local boys were going to win their first title since 1934.
They haven’t won one since. No team from the 16th Region, the far corner of Kentucky, has won one since.
There have been some good Ashland teams—the 1977 bunch made the state tournament final four, the ’96 team lost in the championship game—but also some long droughts. Then this 33-0 season erupted out of nowhere, reviving old Ashland pride.
“High school athletics are our community,” Martin said. “Things can be bad in your life, but you can come to Anderson gym for two hours and get away from it. You can have the best entertainment in town."
The home games have indeed been packed, and nobody has brought a bigger road following to 16th Region games than Ashland. The following has expanded to include expatriate alums nationwide.
“Ashland is all about God, the Kentucky Wildcats and the Ashland Tomcats—and not necessarily in that order,” said Chris Cameron, an Ashland native who worked as sports information director at Kentucky and Boston College, and currently lives in Boston. “It’s the only high school in town. You went there, your parents went there, your grandparents. It becomes part of the story of your entire life.
“When Ashland was 10-0, then 15-0, then 20-0, word spread like wildfire on Facebook. People are hungry for another state title. It’s been too long. Everyone thought this was the year.”
Coaching comes out of Jason Mays’s pores. He exudes it, inhales it, loves it, knows all the coaching aphorisms and studies all the great ones. He’s got the books, watched the videos, lived the life.
He had been a college assistant coach for many years, primarily at the small-college level in Kentucky. He got out of the game for a while after his kids were born, working as a financial adviser and selling insurance and even launching an unsuccessful campaign for state representative, but the sport was in his blood.
He returned to the game and was interim head coach at Division II Kentucky Wesleyan in 2017-18, but was passed over for the permanent job. That’s when Mays decided to try the high school route, and Ashland happened to be hiring.
His first season was inauspicious. The Tomcats were 3-5 when Mays figured out something was very wrong with a hard-charging approach crafted through years of working with young adults.
“I asked the players, ‘Raise your hand if you’re scared of me,’ “ Mays recalled. “Every player raised his hand. I had to change.”
Even with a better perspective on how to coach high schoolers, the season was a struggle. Ashland was 14-16 heading into the 16th Region tournament, with a berth in the Sweet Sixteen on the line but seemingly unrealistic.
But Mays had just gotten Villers back from an ACL injury suffered a year earlier, and it gave him an idea to try a radical makeover—Ashland was going small ball, spreading the floor and shooting threes. He moved a couple of football players to the bench and went with five guards.
Ashland won its first regional game by a point, then its second by four, then rolled to a 16-point win for the title. At the state tourney the Tomcats scored a first-round upset of Owensboro before being routed by eventual champion Trinity. An identity had been formed that would carry over to this season.
The arrival of floppy-haired freshman point guard Collin Porter sealed the makeover. Villers was “the alpha dog, a great kid, strong in his faith, but he’ll slit your throat.” Everyone in the starting lineup was 6' 2" or shorter, but they all can handle and shoot. Ashland averages 26 three-point attempts per game and has five players who have made 48 or more for the season.
“We don’t have any airport players,” Mays said. “We’re not the kind of team that walks through an airport and you say, ‘Wow, look at those guys.’ But we can spread it and we can shoot it.
“If you take away the three then we’re going past you to the rim. If you pack it in and hope we miss?”
Mays shrugged and smiled. That strategy hadn’t worked yet.
The 16th Region tournament was a tour de force for Ashland. The Tomcats won by 20, 28 and 24 points. The championship game was out of hand so early that Mays played his junior varsity players for the final quarter and a half.
“We were playing phenomenal,” said Porter. “We were all clicking.”
And now … everything has been paused. The boys are getting up shots at their church gyms or on driveway hoops, trying to stay ready, waiting for a miracle reversal of the current situation.
The 2020 Sweet Sixteen is on hold, unlikely to ever be played. The opportunity to be the first undefeated state champion in 72 years is probably dead. The thrill of a special season is ebbing in Ashland, coming to a quiet end on a deserted hillside campus. The Tomcats may never be able to prove to all of Kentucky how good they are.