Maybe no player in the past 10 years had a better rapport with former Ashland coach Leon Hart than Sam Hunter.
For most of four seasons, from 2008 to 2011, Hunter was the Tomcats’ starting quarterback and he broke every passing record in the books.
Hunter was working at Ashland Sporting Goods when word arrived that Hart was retiring as the Tomcats’ coach. Hunter spent a lot of time with Hart studying film and learning how to become an efficient quarterback.
Hunter and Ian Holbrook, the Tomcats’ quarterback in 2004 and 2005, were the best signal-callers during Hart’s tenure.
The coach became so comfortable and confident in Hunter’s abilities he would send in two or three options and let him make the final decision.
“He kind of gave me a little more freedom my junior year,” Hunter said. “We’d watch tape and he’d show me defenses and how they were running; little things that people wouldn’t catch. He was still calling the plays, but I’d take those two or three plays and call what I thought would be best.”
Hunter’s ability to audible at the line of scrimmage kept defenses on their toes.
“A lot of times they would call in a play and I’d be sitting there thinking ‘They want that? I’m not sure.’ Coach Hart would give me a thumbs up because he knew the look on my face.”
Hunter started four games into his freshman season on a running team that powered over opponents. But there was a little more passing as a sophomore and then Hunter was letting it fly as a junior and senior. He owns every Tomcat passing record.
Before him, Holbrook shattered records from 2004 and 2005 under Hart. Those two quarterbacks were under Hart’s watchful eye in six of his 10 seasons.
Holbrook was a sophomore when Hart was hired at Ashland. He remembered some factions among the assistant coaches who thought they were going to be named head coach.
“I remember when coach (Larry) Hall left they were thinking they were going to hire from within,” he said. “I remember it being pretty controversial and players factioned off in the locker room with different assistant coaches.”
But when it was announced Hart was coming, it brought normalcy back to the locker room, Holbrook said. “As soon as he arrived there was unity and stability,” he said.
Holbrook said he remembers the fun of “Camp Tomcat” and how it served as a good bonding tool for the team. He said he was also appreciative that Hart wanted to know his players off the field as well.
“Coach Hart actually wanted to know you as a person,” he said. “I still stay in decent contact with him.”
Holbrook, who is in his third year of medical school, said he and coach Hart had a “mutual respect. I always knew coach Hart had my best and the team’s best in mind. He always knew I’d show up and give everything I had.”
Hunter remembers Hart talking to him when he was an eighth-grader at Verity Middle School and then as a junior varsity quarterback the next year. Hunter started a JV game against Ironton on a Monday night, with the Tomcats winning 13-6, and became the varsity starter that Friday against Russell.
“It was when we had a big line and Rashard (Carter) and Josh (Alber),” Hunter said. “We didn’t need to throw the ball.”
Ashland won the first five games that Hunter started.
Hunter said Hart was always open to suggestions and catered his offense with the personnel available.
“To be able to have success we couldn’t do what we did in the year past,” Hunter said. “We had five linemen and four or five receivers. That’s when we started having fun.”
Adam Cannoy, who also works at ASG, played football in 2005 for Hart.
“He just made it so much fun,” Cannoy said. “It was more like a family atmosphere as far as camp and team dinners. He made it like a big family.”
Cannoy, who also played basketball, regretted not playing more seasons of football.
“Playing football was the best thing I could have done,” he said.
Cannoy said Hart was always helpful in finding opportunities for players who wanted to play in college.
“He’d send out videos and talk to coaches,” Cannoy said. “I think a lot of people don’t know what he did behind the scenes. He’d help out anybody from the area, not just Ashland players.”
MARK MAYNARD can be reached at email@example.com or (606) 326-2648.