ASHLAND — Last year, Ashland’s boys basketball team endured one of the most difficult ventures any team could have gone through.
The Tomcats started the season by becoming the first 2,000-win program in Kentucky state history, then continued the momentum throughout the season, winning a 16th Region crown and sporting a 33-0 record as the state tournament was set to start.
The way the Tomcats had dominated their region — they won the region tournament by an average of 24 points per game with no game being decided by fewer than 20 — had folks in Ashland discussing them as the best in program history.
Just as the buzz surrounding the program was at its peak, the unthinkable happened.
COVID-19’s clutch on the United States decimated sports and left Ashland without fulfillment after the Kentucky Sweet 16 was canceled.
It was a difficult time for all in sports, but for Ashland, it hit on a deeper level.
“Our locker room on March 13 was a little bit different than others because of what we’d gone through with the undefeated season and the first team to 2,000 wins,” Ashland coach Jason Mays said. “The pressure, the media and then for them not to go try to finish that, that was tough.”
For the Tomcats, a cancellation was far worse than even potentially losing at the state tournament.
If you went to the tournament and lost, at least there was the finality of the season and the knowledge that, on one day, there was someone else better.
In this case, the only thing determined was that there would never be any way to know if the 2019-20 team would have won a state championship and gone down as one of the greatest — if not, the greatest — in program history.
It was a punch in the gut to the sports-loving community which had dealt with its share of disappointment after the closure of many businesses, such as Ashland Oil and AK Steel, that had been the fabric of the town.
“We’re reinventing ourselves as a community,” Mays said.
The one constant through that transition as a community has been Ashland’s proud sports tradition, which has not wavered despite the changes in infrastructure within the city.
In the fall, Ashland’s football team worked its way to a Class 3A title, finishing 11-0 and wrapping up the title with a 35-14 win over Elizabethtown — ironically, the team Ashland’s basketball team was supposed to face in the 2020 Sweet 16 before its cancellation.
Following that football title, talk again centered around the basketball program fulfilling its destiny, which was to play on the Rupp Arena floor and compete for a state title.
“Having some brevity during these changing times where your local football team can win the state championship or your local basketball team can go undefeated last year and win back-to-back-to-back regional championships, the community is just really supportive and enthralled in what we’re doing right now.”
Last week, those barbershop talks about titles became reality in the most improbable of ways as Ashland rallied for not one, but two overtime games to win the 16th Region crown.
In the semifinal against West Carter, point guard Colin Porter hit a step-back 3-pointer to send it to overtime before the Tomcats prevailed.
Then, two nights later, Ashland topped that improbable finish when the team — without Porter, who fouled out with around six minutes left — rallied from 11 down in the fourth quarter to again force overtime and defeat Rowan County for their third straight region title.
Many will say that 2021 is a new year, and Mays acknowledges such with his team changing from 2020 when they played five guards to a 2021 version that has post presence Sean Marcum to go along with Porter’s handles and scoring, as well as the 3-point ability to Cole Villers and Ethan Sellars.
While there are differences, Mays also knows much of the composure and grit shown in his team — especially those two regional comebacks — was a product of what the team had gone through since March 2020.
Mays said that regional performance showed exactly how much his team plays for one another — not themselves — on the court.
“These kids love each other,” Mays said. “I mean that word in the full sense of it — love. They have been through a lot….There’s several ways that (cancellation) could go, but one of the ways I was hoping it would go is that it would bring them more together, and that’s exactly what happened.”
On Thursday, Ashland will wait until the 8 p.m. time slot — the final Sweet 16 first-round game scheduled — to fulfill that destiny of making it to Rupp Arena when they take on Knox Central.
Mays laughed when asked about the logistics or disadvantage of the late Thursday time slot, which is the only one in which if a team advances to the title game, it will have played four full games in just a three-day window.
For Mays, waiting around for the late game is nothing.
Heck, his Ashland players have been waiting for more than a year to hit that floor at Rupp.
On Thursday, that wait is over.