Opponents couldn’t keep him out of the backfield.
A menace all season long from his defensive end position, Ashland senior Cade O’Bryan was so dominant that coaches unanimously named him Player of the Year on the All-Area Large School Football Team.
Big and athletic, O’Bryan displayed an uncanny ability to crash enemy lines and wreak havoc.
“The other team would be running a sweep,” said Ashland coach Leon Hart, “and Cade was waiting out there. He was constantly getting after the quarterback. It got to the point where you just expected it.”
O’Bryan’s combination of size — 6-foot-3, 245 pounds — athleticism and relentlessness produced a season that enabled him to become one of the rare linemen in All-Area history to win the Player of the Year award.
“It makes me really appreciate everything,” O’Bryan said. “There are so many good players. I’m glad I got picked. I couldn’t have done it without the Lord blessing me with all the ability that I have.”
O’Bryan, also a standout at offensive tackle, helped pave the way as Ashland went 9-3 against a rugged schedule and returned to the second round of the Class 4A playoffs.
The Tomcats and district rival Johnson Central lead the All-Area squad with 11 players apiece.
Johnson Central edged Ashland 22-21 in overtime for the district title on the strength of a 19-yard touchdown pass on fourth-and-goal, and successful two-point conversion.
Hart and counterpart Jim Matney share Coach of the Year honors.
“I’m honored for my name to be mentioned with coach Hart,” Matney said. “It’s a great rivalry. Our games have been good, clean fun with not much trash talking.”
O’Bryan said he’ll miss those battles. His play spoke for itself this season, including a slew of sacks and other tackles behind the line of scrimmage.
“Cade is big guy who moves well and has a knack for getting off blocks,” Hart said. “He’s a kid that always brings a ton of energy and enthusiasm. I think he deserves everything he’s gotten.”
Along with Large School Player of the Year, O’Bryan received District Player of the Year honors and participated in the Best of the Bluegrass All-Star Game last weekend. Hart said O’Bryan’s name also belongs on All-State teams still to be announced.
O’Bryan has shown plenty of versatility as an offensive lineman, where he earned All-Area honors as a junior. He also stepped into a longsnapper role this season after an injury to starting center Drew Walters.
“Cade could play center, and he did play guard and tackle during his career,” Hart said.
It’s defense, however, that O’Bryan likes best. One of his favorite football memories dates back to middle school, when good friend and teammate Cody Watts blitzed up the middle late in a game against Lawrence County, intercepted a handoff and carried the ball to the end zone for a come-from-behind victory.
Watts, who missed this season due to injury, had the pleasure of watching O’Bryan score three defensive touchdowns.
In the home opener, O’Bryan went 34 yards after picking a fumble. Later in the first quarter, he stripped the ball from a Lawrence County running back and scored on a 69-yard return.
O’Bryan added another steal-and-score in the Tomcats’ Homecoming romp over Boyd County.
“You see the first one and think OK,” Hart said. “Then you look up, and he’s taken the ball and running almost 70 yards. Then later in the season he does it again. That’s almost unbelievable.”
Reminded of the accomplishment, O’Bryan smiled.
“I was just trying to make plays happen for my team,” he said. “In the big picture, I couldn’t have done anything without my teammates and coaches.”
O’Bryan called Ashland’s head coach a special person.
“I’m thankful for all coach Hart has done not just for me, but the team,” O’Bryan said. “I’m so glad I got to spend these last four years playing for him. I learned so much.”
The Tomcats beat West Virginia state semifinalist George Washington and Kentucky 3A runner-up Belfry during the regular season and rolled past Holmes 41-14 in the opening round of the playoffs. Ashland played Highlands close in the first half before falling to the eventual state champs.
“We had a really good year,” Hart said. “I think it could have been special if we were able to stay healthy. We beat some really good football teams, and lost to some really good football teams. You are really spoiled if you win nine games and it’s not an exceptional season. This was a talented group with extremely high expectations going in.”
Ashland’s other All-Area picks included quarterback Aaron Elam, freshman running back Quinton Baker, offensive lineman Drew Walters, tight end C.J. Johnson, receiver Malik Massey, defensive lineman Josh Ellis, linebackers Shannon Justice and Slater Swift, and defensive backs Logan Salow and Noah Wessel.
Elam accounted for more than 1,600 yards and 18 touchdowns with his passing and running.
Baker carried more than 900 yards and 16 TDs in just over seven games before being sidelined with a foot injury.
“He’s the best player as a freshman since I’ve been here,” Hart said. “Quinton stepped into the lineup to start the season after we lost Cody Watts and made so many big plays.”
Massey was the Tomcats’ second-leading scorer, moving from wideout to running back after Baker’s injury. Massey caught six TD passes and ran for eight scores.
O’Bryan and Ellis led a strong defensive front, while Justice and Swift cleaned up behind them. Both linebackers had long careers as starters.
Salow, another veteran, made five interceptions including a pair against Highlands.
Johnson Central also finished 9-3 and reached the second round of postseason play before falling to Covington Catholic.
“It was a big year for us,” said Matney, who guided the Golden Eagles to their sixth district title in nine years. “Any time you are able to win the district, that means a lot. Any time you beat Ashland, people don’t realize it’s a difficult thing to do.”
Johnson Central’s season also included a win over a strong Ironton team.
“We accomplished quite a bit,” Matney said. “Injuries kind of caught up to us at the end. But this will be remembered as a special team, a never say die team. They will be remembered for winning a district when it seemed like an impossible situation for them.”
The Golden Eagles pulled out the win over Ashland thanks to All-Area receiver Dalton Adkins’ last-gasp TD catch in the end zone. Jordan Young, a 1,200-yard rusher and All-Area defensive back, scored the decisive two-pointer.
Central is also represented on the All-Area squad by running backs Daymion Belcher and Josh Dillon, offensive linemen Rusty Baldridge and Quade Ward, linebackers Brad Auxier and Jimmy Preston, defensive linemen Matt King and Matt Hall, and punter Zach Gound.
Belcher, a sophomore, led the rushing attack with about 1,500 yards.
Boyd County’s five selections included running back Reid Dearfield, receiver Dylan Harris, offensive lineman Cain Cooksey, defensive back Jason Smith and defensive lineman Collin Smith.
Dearfield, Harris and Smith are All-Area repeaters. Harris set school records for catches and receiving yards. Dearfield was again a big threat out of the backfield, while Smith had eight interceptions. He returned two of them for touchdowns.
Rowan County linemen Austin Gilliam (offense) and Tre Estill (defense) were chosen for the second year in a row.
Greenup County placed linebacker Skyler Williams and placekicker Wade Reed, who connected on five field goals and missed only one extra point.
ROCKY STANLEY can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (606) 326-2671.