Last October, following Ashland’s first win over Johnson Central in six years, Tomcats coach Leon Hart said “We’re going to enjoy this one a bunch.”
Well, the honeymoon is finally over.
The two schools meet once again for the same exact precious present on the line: a district crown. The showdown takes place Friday night in Paintsville.
This one carries a bit more weight, actually, as home field advantage throughout the playoffs is also at stake.
Ashland hopes to enjoy another year as Class 4A District 8 titleholders. Hart has conveyed a message to his group, namely his seniors, in order to help achieve that goal.
“We’re a different football team than we were a year ago,” Hart said. “I told them, ‘You were part of somebody else’s team.’ This is the seniors’ chance to be district champions.”
Ashland (8-1) and Johnson Central (7-1) both enter the game undefeated against district opponents — Rowan County, Boyd County nor Greenup County came close to knocking off the district powers. The Tomcats were ranked No. 6 and the Golden Eagles No. 8 in the latest Associated Press poll.
“This is the most important game of the year, no question about it,” Hart said.
Johnson Central coach Jim Matney, who is 6-2 against Ashland with the Golden Eagles, had a slightly different message for his players.
“It’s a district championship, so we want to play our best game of the year,” Matney said. “On the other hand, we know that our goal is a state championship. So, as important as this game is, the playoffs are more important. That kind of puts a mixed meaning on this game.”
A playoff-type atmosphere is sure to fill the “Eagles Nest” on Friday night.
“It should be a fun time,” Matney said regarding the expected crowd.
Ashland hasn’t been entirely amused by what it’s seen on film, with Johnson Central now having three viable weapons instead of one great one in the backfield. The Tomcats held Kentucky’s all-time leading rusher J.J. Jude to just 81 yards, including 25 in the first half last season.
This season, Daymion Belcher, Jordan Young and Josh Dillon have all been threats. Each surpassed 100 rushing yards in a 58-14 throttling of Rowan County last week.
“It’s tougher,” Hart said. “You could assign guys to Jude. Now, you really have to make sure that you take care of everyone. Their backs are always tough, tough runners. They may not have the kind of speed that Jude had, but they have the same kind of toughness.”
Both coaches realize the importance of the battle up front in what figures to be a tremendously physical contest.
“Fundamentally, I think coach Matney is a really good football coach,” Hart said. “They’re extremely well prepared and always physical ... their power running game makes it physical.”
Ashland hopes to combat that power with some of its own.
Defensively, Cade O’Bryan has put forth a fantastic senior effort all year long. He has three fumble returns for touchdowns.
Shannon Justice and Slater Swift have had great impact at linebacker to help highlight a solid front seven.
Quinton Baker is back for the Tomcats on offense. The freshman running back has 923 yards and 16 TDs on the ground. He missed the last two games with a sprained foot.
“He’s been bouncing around at practice this week,” Hart added music to Ashland’s fans’ ears.
Aaron Elam looks to complete his first full regular season as the Tomcats’ starting quarterback on a positive note. The left-handed junior has racked up 818 yards through the air, along with eight TDs and four interceptions, to go with 406 yards rushing.
The only common non-district opponent is Ironton — Johnson Central doesn’t play Belfry until next week. Ashland beat the Pirates 35-20 two weeks ago.
Ironton beat Ashland in Ironton. The Fighting Tigers fell to Johnson Central in Paintsville.
Matney said none of that matters.
“We’ll find out a lot about these teams in this game,” Matney said.
This marks the second straight season in which Johnson Central is Ashland’s final regular season opponent. In the past, the two area titans typically met in early October.
“I’m really glad the schedule ended up this way,” Hart said.
AARON SNYDER can be reached at email@example.com or (606) 326-2664.