ASHLAND, Ky. (KT) – The bounce is back in Ashland basketball. For Tomcat fans of all ages, that means all is right in the world of high school hoops.
We’re talking about a symbiotic relationship here. The city and its hardwood heroes feed off one another. There’s a livelier vibe around this northeast Kentucky town when the Tomcats are winning, and the team seems to step up its game when the gym is loud and proud.
That’s the way it’s been for more than 100 years.
Ashland’s boys’ basketball history includes a state runner-up finish in 1920; state and national championships in 1928; back-to-back state titles in 1933 and ’34; a fourth state crown in 1961, and a fourth state runner-up in 1996.
The Tomcats have won more state tournament games — 49 – than anybody.
And — trumpets, please — just a few weeks ago Ashland became the first high school program in the state to reach 2,000 victories.
That is not to say there haven’t been trying times. After winning the 16th Region in 2001 and 2002, the Tomcats went 16 long years without earning a trip to the Sweet Sixteen.
“That was such a gut-punch,” said Mark Maynard, a former Ashland newspaperman, and a Tomcats’ historian. “It was shocking they hadn’t gone in that long.”
It was a dry stretch that threatened the very foundation of the program.
“That drought was heavy here. Almost in terms of apathy,” said Jason Mays, who took over as Ashland coach in May of 2018.
But then the Tomcats turned things around in an unlikely way.
After finishing the 2018-19 regular season with a 13-15 record, they won the region, made the trip to Rupp Arena and beat Owensboro in their state tournament opener before losing in the quarterfinals to eventual state champ Trinity.
Ashland had rediscovered the recipe for sweet success, and it has carried it over into this season.
The Tomcats are one of the last remaining undefeated teams in the state. They beat Trinity at Transylvania Tuesday night to push their record to 15-0 — tying for the fourth-best start in school history.
Those 15 wins, of course, included No. 2,000.
With the Tomcats’ distinguished tradition, wasn’t it only fitting they were the first to reach that plateau?
“Yes! And I say that without any prejudice at all,” Jerry Henderson said with a laugh.
Henderson, of course, is anything but unbiased when it comes to the Tomcats. He was first-team all-state for Ashland in 1954 and went on to play college ball at Florida.
Henderson still swears allegiance to Ashland, and on a recent Saturday night he had a front-row seat to watch the host Tomcats beat Woodford County.
He wasn’t the only former Tomcat in the house.
So was Dale Sexton, who played for Bob Wright on Ashland’s 1961 state title team.
So were brothers Billy and Bobby Lynch, who were standout athletes (and state baseball champs) for the Tomcats later in the 1960s.
And so was Mark Surgalski, who led Ashland to its back-to-back region titles in 2001-02.
Mark Swift’s job as Ashland’s athletic director (for the last 22 years) required his attendance. But as a basketball alum — he played on the school’s 1977 final four team led by Jeff Kovach — he’d be a crowd regular anyway.
Once a Tomcat, always a Tomcat.
Ashland basketball has that kind of hold on them and, for that matter, everybody else around here.
“It’s our community. It means everything to our community,” said Dicky Martin, the team’s radio play-by-play man the last 44 years.
The school has undergone a couple of name changes over the years.
In 1962 it became Ashland Paul G. Blazer, in honor of the Ashland Oil president and CEO, who was a revered champion of education.
Twenty years ago the name was officially shortened to Ashland Blazer.
When it comes to hoops, however, they’ll always be simply the Ashland Tomcats.
Growing up in Ashland meant you were indoctrinated early. Take it from Billy Lynch.
“When we were 7 or 8, our dad took us to the AIT (Ashland Invitational Tournament). They always brought in the best teams in the state, and the old gym was so small they tried to pack in twice as many people as it would hold. We saw guys like Mike Silliman and Wes Unseld. It was just big-time basketball and so exciting.
“Seeing all that really gave us a purpose. Whenever we’d go outside and play in somebody’s backyard, we’d sing, or at least hum, the Ashland fight song before we started the game.”
Lynch also remembered the thrill of having players from the 1961 title team come to Crabbe grade school and run basketball drills with him and his classmates.
“Getting to do that with guys like Larry Conley and Harold Sergent just got me more excited,” he said. “I couldn’t wait to be a Tomcat.”
Bobby Lynch said Ashland’s ’61 champs “set the standard for everybody. We were at that age where we were very impressionable. They inspired everybody to try to emulate them, to be the best for Ashland.”
More than three decades later Surgalski got the bug. His older sister Jennifer was an Ashland cheerleader for the Tomcats’ 1996 run to the state finals under Coach Wayne Breeden.
Surgalski recalled how excited he was after Ashland won the region at Morehead State that year, and being in the police-escorted caravan back to Ashland for the rowdy celebration at the Bluegrass Drive-in Restaurant.
Then came the “hustle and bustle” of the Sweet Sixteen at Rupp Arena where the Tomcats advanced to the finals before falling to Paintsville.
“It was awe-inspiring,” Surgalski said. “I was only in middle school, but I knew I wanted to be part of something like that.”
A few years later he got to live it as the 6-foot-8 star of Ashland’s back-to-back region champs under Mike Flynn.
“Expectations here come with the name across the chest,” Surgalski said. “The guys who came before us laid the foundation, and it was our job to put a brick on top and keep building it for future generations.”
As fate would have it, Surgalski got a chance to help add another brick to Ashland’s tradition.
When the Tomcats were looking for a coach in 2018, Surgalski advocated for Mays, who had been an assistant at Georgetown College when Surgalski played there.
When Mays got the job, he persuaded Surgalski to join his staff for his first year at Ashland.
“So I got to come back, work with the kids, and be part of that amazing late-season run,” he said.
Mays, whose coaching resume includes college stops at Georgetown, Campbellsville, Valdosta State and Kentucky Wesleyan, said he quickly recognized that Ashland was “a really special place.”
Flynn will second that opinion. He coached the Tomcats nine years – a long tenure in this pressure-cooker environment.
“The tradition, the support and the passion that the entire community has for the program, it’s overwhelming,” Flynn said. “How many gyms do you walk in and see massive banners from the 1910s and 1920s, and a national championship from 1928? You’re just like, ‘Wow!’
“What’s amazing too is how many people there know the stories of the past great teams and players. It’s incredible. It’s almost like an oral history that’s been passed on from one generation to the next.
“You have to be in the middle of it to really, truly appreciate how special it is.”
Swift will testify to that on a personal level.
After playing college basketball at Liberty, he went out into the real world and worked in Florida, California and Alabama. Life was good.
Then along came two sons, Connor and Slater, and Swift’s heart led him back home to Ashland.
“Because of my own experience here, I wanted my boys to have the same experience I had,” Swift said. “It may not have been the same, but it was damn close. Both were good students and two-sport athletes.”
Connor graduated from Ashland in 2010; Slater in 2013.
“The bottom line was I got what I wanted for them,” Swift said. “That’s how much this place means to me.”
Martin, class of 1972, is an unabashed Tomcat loyalist. He doesn’t try to filter his feelings when he’s calling an Ashland game.
Why should he? He’s more connected to the team than just about anybody. He’s witnessed 871 of their basketball victories.
And before he slid behind the mic, his father, Dick, was the radio voice of the Tomcats for 32 years.
Just don’t bother trying to get Dicky to list the most memorable games he’s seen.
“There have been so many; every time I walk into this gym,” he said.
Martin has been a long-time caretaker of Ashland’s basketball tradition. Mays is the latest to share that responsibility.
He has reached out to former Tomcat players and coaches, hoping to bridge the gap between the good ol’ days and the promising future.
He started an annual “legacy dinner” and Conley was the special guest for the inaugural gathering in 2018. Breeden and Flynn were the featured speakers for last fall’s event that drew about 200 people.
Mays also makes sure his players are well-versed in the school’s basketball history. On the first day of school in August, he showed them the black-and-white game film of Ashland’s 1961 championship.
“They’ve been immersed in Tomcat pride, and it means a lot to them,” Mays said.
Ethan Hudson, a senior starter, said he and his teammates embrace the past.
“Since we were little we’ve been waiting to try to revive what this town had because we know they have a lot of pride in that.
“Most schools don’t have the kind of tradition we have. We’re really lucky we have something like that to drive us day in and day out to achieve something we can be proud of too.”
Conley, who has the unique distinction of having contributed to two 2,000-win programs (UK and Ashland), was unaware that this year’s Tomcats were undefeated and taking aim at the ’61 team’s 21-0 start to a season.
When told the news, Conley’s reaction was just what you’d expect:
“That’s great to hear! I’m always rooting for my boys,” he said, Ashland proud.