Three returning starters = three losses.
For most, kicking off with only a trio of starters back from the season prior would translate into finishing with worse than a 7-3 record heading into the playoffs.
Not for Ashland.
Did first-year coach Tony Love envision a seven-win outcome?
“I’ve been asked that a lot of times,” Love said on Wednesday. “I don’t know if I really sat down and tried to project how many wins we were going to have. You expect to win every game, but you don’t want to set a goal to go undefeated.”
In one stretch, the Tomcats won six straight behind timely offense and an improving defense.
Their losses came against unbeaten Johnson Central, perennial Class 2A state contender Newport Central Catholic and highly ranked West Virginia foe George Washington.
Entering Friday night’s Class 4A postseason opener against Covington Holmes at Putnam Stadium, Love said schedule strength is the first common quality that jumps out.
“(Holmes) has seen a lot of speed and a lot of good football,” Love said. “Our kids are battle-tested, too.”
Holmes (5-5) follows the lead of experienced runner Jonathon Scruggs. The senior toted the ball 20 times a game, on average, for 151 yards a contest.
Ashland held Scruggs in check en route to a 41-14 win over Holmes in the first round last postseason.
“He’s a pretty good athlete, and they find ways to get him the ball. But we can’t just load the box to try and stop Scruggs,” Love said. “Last year, they had a receiver who went up over top of us, catching ball after ball.”
While that receiver, Desean Peterman, graduated, Holmes still possesses plenty of athleticism.
In terms of scheme, Holmes has notably changed under first-year coach Benjamin Nevels, Love said.
The Bulldogs operate out of the shotgun formation and effectively use zone blocking. Quarterback Desean Brumfield has found 14 different receivers throughout the course of the season for 1,024 yards and 10 touchdowns. He is mistake-prone, though, having tallied 13 interceptions.
“We have to watch for the bootleg and bubble screens,” Love said. “We have to tighten up our perimeter people.”
Nose tackle Breandon Johnson could pose a concern for the Tomcats. He leads a 3-3 stack defense.
Defense is the area in which Love has noticed the most significant growth in his group.
Sure, Quinton Baker’s 1,493 rushing yards and 16 touchdowns, Josh Vaughn’s hard-nosed running and the quarterback play of Hunter Prince and Tyler Rose have been vital to the Tomcats’ success. But, without the steady guidance from seniors Luke Johnson and James Queen and emerging leadership from Miles McGranahan, Drew O’Bryan, Trey Thompson, Rose and others, most prominently on the defensive side, Ashland wouldn’t stand as confident as it does today.
“We’re not just 11 guys as individuals,” Love said. “The kids have gotten better at communicating. And now there’s a bit of urgency with them. For the seniors, they see their road coming to an end ... We’ve talked about taking this as far as we can.”
at Johnson Central
At 56.2 points per game, Johnson Central is the highest-scoring team in Class 4A. The Golden Eagles are also quite stingy on the other side of the ball, limiting opponents to 12.9 PPG.
Coming in at No. 3 in the latest Associated Press poll, Johnson Central begins its trek to prove it belongs even higher in the rankings as it hosts the Thorobreds on Friday.
If it beats Harrison County, Johnson Central faces a possible journey to state supremacy that would likely include No. 4 Covington Catholic, No. 1 Highlands and No. 2 Boyle County before the title game in Bowling Green.
The Golden Eagles are coming off a 54-20 blowout of previously unbeaten Belfry.
Running backs Jordan Young, Daymion Belcher and Josh Dillon and quarterback Zach Gound work behind a towering offensive line, a group whose average height is 6-foot-4.
Linebacker Brad Auxier has a knack for coming up with opportunistic plays time after time.
Johnson Central eliminated Harrison County, 68-14, last November.
Rowan County at
The Vikings (3-7) will follow the lead of sophomore quarterback Devin Helvey, senior running back Isaac Lee and senior lineman Austin Gilliam as they try to pull of the upset.
Covington Catholic (8-2) is led by quarterback Ben Dressman. The sophomore has accumulated 1,549 yards on 110-of-185 passing to go with 16 touchdowns. He’s also the team’s leading rusher at 484 yards.
The Lions (1-9) beat Greenup County in thrilling, come-from-behind fashion to earn a spot in the playoffs.
This marks the third straight year Boyd County will travel to Highlands for the first round. The Lions lost 56-14 in 2012 and 63-7 in 2011.
Quarterback Drew Houliston has thrown for 2,702 yards, 35 touchdowns and two interceptions for Highlands (9-1).
AARON SNYDER can be reached at email@example.com or (606) 326-2664.