Fittingly, Steven Friley and Ross Thompson remain deadlocked with stellar ACT scores of 30, despite Friley’s efforts to edge ahead.
Best friends since middle school, the Ashland Blazer seniors have excelled academically through the years while playing hundreds of school-affiliated and AAU basketball games together.
Friley, a double-double magnet in the post, and Thompson at point guard are two of the main factors behind the Tomcats’ 15-5 record heading into February.
“Their basketball IQ is very high, as is their real IQ,” Ashland coach Buddy Biggs said. “Anything we show them as a staff, they pick it right up. You don’t have to tell them anything twice.”
Both carry grade point averages above 4.0 — the top of the old scale.
“We’ve had the same exact class schedule pretty much all through high school,” Friley said. “There’s an unsaid competition between us about who could get the higher ACT score.”
Friley posted a 28 on his first try. He followed up with a 29, then 30. He’s taken the test twice more with the same result.
Biggs described Friley and Thompson as “the epitome of what you want a student-athlete to be in your program.”
That goes beyond stat sheets and grade cards, according to the coach.
“They have great attitudes, as well as being very respectful and courteous,” Biggs said. “It’s refreshing to be around young people like that. As a whole, this is one of the most enjoyable groups I’ve had over the years.”
Ashland is again a 16th Region contender despite key losses from last year’s roster.
“I do think we came in with a chip on our shoulder,” Thompson said. “People were saying in the preseason that we lost a lot of scoring. It does motivate you.”
Biggs said both players have performed beyond his expectations this season.
Friley is averaging a double-double — 13.7 points and a 16th Region-leading 12.4 rebounds — in his first year as a starter while shooting 52 percent from the field. He also provides a solid defensive presence in the middle, including 28 blocked shots.
“Steven has been a double-double machine,” Biggs said. “He’s very strong on the boards, and crafty. If he can’t get a rebound, he will tap it to a teammate.”
Thompson, a two-year starter, came into his own this season as the team’s backcourt leader. Biggs said the 5-foot-10, 165-pounder makes up for a lack of height with tenacity and a voracious work ethic.
“His assist to turnover ratio (3-1) is very good, and a lot of times he doesn’t come out of games,” Biggs said.
Thompson showed his ability in Ashland’s 67-63 win over Cincinnati Taft at the Ironton Classic in December.
“He shredded their press, and Taft has some next-level players,” Biggs said.
Both Tomcats pointed to increased toughness last offseason for raising their level of play.
Thompson decided to play football for the first time in his high school career and quickly developed into a solid outside linebacker for the Tomcats, who exceeded expectations with an 8-4 record.
“A great experience, definitely good for me,” he said.
Offensively, Thompson filled in at running back and also caught a touchdown pass.
“He has a confidence about him that you can see on the basketball court, too,” Tomcat football coach Tony Love said. “Ross doesn’t get rattled. Probably more than anything, he’s an extremely hard worker and eager to learn, just all the qualities you want in a kid.”
Thompson benefited greatly from his time in the weight room, posting top lifts of 255 (bench press) and 365 (squat).
The added muscle has come in handy on the basketball court, allowing him to better shield off defenders and take the ball stronger to the basket.
“Last year, I relied on passing and could kind of lean on Logan (Salow),” Thompson said. “This season, I’ve tried to be more aggressive and also shoulder some of the leadership. I’m more confident.”
He’s also developed into a legitimate scoring threat. Thompson averages just under nine points, shooting 80 percent at the foul line and 41 percent behind the arc — both significant improvements from last season.
“This summer, me and my dad (David) spent time on shooting,” said Thompson, who also received help from Tomcat assistants Scott Floyd and Jeremy Howell. “Coach Floyd worked a lot with me, kind of changing up some things.”
On Jan. 4, Thompson went 4-for-4 from 3-point range and scored 19 points against Scott in the Marvin Meredith Classic as the Tomcats won by 27.
“His offensive game has improved dramatically,” Biggs said.
Friley grew an inch and put on a little weight since last season, but playing in an adult league at the Ashland Armory during the summer really made him a better player.
“Going up against 35-year-old men, it’s physical and makes you tougher,” Friley said. “That definitely helped me.”
Friley and junior Nick Miller form a solid rebounding combination for the Tomcats.
“We realize if you don’t rebound, you’re not going to win,” Friley said.
Friley is contemplating playing small-college basketball, but can see himself attending Kentucky or Morehead State and concentrating on academics.
“That’s what I feel I really excel at,” he said. “I know I’m not going to cash any checks playing basketball.”
Said Thompson, who plans to attend the University of Kentucky and study kinesiology: “My parents focus on (education). It’s probably going to open up more doors than basketball will.”
If indeed this is their final basketball season, Thompson and Friley are trying to squeeze everything they can out of it.
“We’re having a great time, playing hard and pushing each other,” Friley said. “It’s about the team.”
Friley recently picked up six teammates on a frigid day to make sure they got to basketball practice.
“Things like that, you don’t have to ask Steven or Ross,” Biggs said. “They go above and beyond. They put others first, and the team first. What they achieve on the basketball court will pale in comparison to what they do in life.”
ROCKY STANLEY can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (606) 326-2671.