In the midst of economic chaos in northeastern Kentucky, with businesses closing and others struggling as they try to build, with increased drug activity that has wrecked lives families and caused some ultimate heartbreaks, there has been one constant in Ashland since a few days after last Thanksgiving.
These days, Ashland is giving thanks for basketball.
The Ashland Tomcats are in the midst of a 100-year season, a near-miracle happening in this day and time, running off 27 consecutive victories and bringing back memories of the greatest days in Tomcat basketball history. All the way back to 1928 when Ashland was not only kings of Kentucky but kings of the country by winning a national high school championship in Chicago. They have been compared to the last Tomcat team to win a state championship in 1961 – a team that still stirs Sweet Sixteen memories as one of her greatest champions.
If the Tomcats were to run the table, as inconceivable as that still seems even with only one regular season game remaining, they would finish 37-0 and match those 1928 champions for victories in a season.
But it’s even bigger than that.
With a bounce of a basketball, the Tomcats have kept the bounce of a community’s heart beating, too. They have given us a distraction, if only for a few hours, from all the trouble swirling around us – a hospital and 100-year-old steel mill closing, an aluminum plant whose executives are in turmoil with a $500 million deadline and a coming-soon-court case over who’s the boss and city leaders trying so hard to find a way to bring a desperate downtown back to life.
Ashland has fallen in love with basketball again behind a team that has found ways to win, loves a good assist as much as a bucket, and never holsters its biggest weapon – the 3-point shot. It is reminiscent of how Kentucky played in the early days of Rick Pitino’s coaching days, the Bombinos who brought us one of the most beloved teams in UK history. They lined up behind the arc and let ‘er rip. That’s kind of these Tomcats’ MO too.
While it’s true that you can maybe be too much in love with the 3-pointer and it can make you suspectable to getting beat when the shots aren’t falling (although so far that hasn’t happened), it also makes you capable of beating almost anyone. And should the Tomcats find their way back to Rupp Arena in March for the Sweet Sixteen, they may well need that shot to defeat bigger and even more talented teams.
No matter what happens though Ashland has made history and even more importantly been a salve for a hurting community. Technology has helped the cause with a local broadcasting company using Facebook for good – imagine that? – in allowing Tomcat fans not only in the community but outside the community to watch this special team.
Or you may have heard about them on ESPN. Yes, a three-quarter-length shot that kept the winning streak alive on Tuesday night – when earlier in the game defeat looked almost certain – pushed Ashland’s record to 27-0 and was Sportscenter’s No. 1 Top Play.
Facebook practically blew up after that happened.
It has been the crescendo (so far) of a season that has brought so much joy to a community when it needed it most.
This group of teenagers, which has been applauded for being an ultimate team and never giving up, has shown us something else, too.
We are better together.
MARK MAYNARD is a lifelong Ashland resident, former editor and sports editor of The Daily Independent and the managing editor of Kentucky Today.